Much of the public is persuadable, but the way politicians frame the issue will be crucial to how voters respond.
When President Obama came out in support of gay marriage on Wednesday, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky was listening closely. As a researcher for the center-left think tank Third Way, she'd spent years measuring changing public attitudes on exactly this issue. She knew that for Obama to persuade voters, there was a right way and a wrong way to frame the topic.
The wrong way: Talk about marriage in terms of rights. When gay-rights advocates talk about the need for marriage as a matter of hospital visits, tax filings, and pensions, moderate voters are turned off, because that's not the role marriage plays in their own lives, Erickson Hatalsky's research has found. Comparisons with the civil rights struggle are also generally a loser; they only make people think about the differences, rather than the similarities, between gays and African Americans.
The right way: Talk about love and commitment. That's the way most people see their own marriages or those around them, and the idea that gays should be able to commit to one another is a powerful one.
As public debate over gay marriage continues to swirl in the wake of Obama's shift, how he and other politicians talk about the issue will be crucial in determining how the public responds. Because while there are hard-core, determined supporters and opponents of gay marriage -- about 30 percent of the public on each side -- there's also a vast, mushy middle of 40-plus percent that's not firmly for or against allowing gays to marry. Their feelings are conflicted, unresolved -- and susceptible to persuasion.