How to Talk to Voters About Gay Marriage: Love, Not Rights

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.

That middle segment of the population "is going to be listening to how the president and his surrogates are talking about marriage," Erickson Hatalsky said. "The country's attention is focused on this in a way it hasn't ever been before."

In the past, as an opponent of gay marriage, Obama had sometimes approached the issue in what Erickson Hatalsky considers the wrong way. Even when he came out on the side of gay-marriage proponents, he did so with language that tended to alienate moderates, as when his campaign issued this statement on this week's anti-gay marriage initiative in North Carolina: "The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. That's what the North Carolina ballot initiative would do," the statement said. (The initiative passed Tuesday by more than 20 percentage points.)

By contrast, in his interview Wednesday with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama took a different tack.

"I had hesitated on gay marriage, in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient," Obama said. "That that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and other elements that we take for granted .... But ... when I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage. At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Erickson Hatalsky couldn't have asked for a better illustration: The president himself was saying that when he thought of marriage in terms of the legal rights involved, he was inclined to just support a functional equivalent -- civil unions. It was the idea of commitment that made marriage itself seem necessary.

This argument might not have worked a decade ago, when gay relationships were less accepted. But today, most Americans know and are comfortable with gays and gay couples. Thinking about marriage the way they themselves experience it, as a ritual of commitment, convinces them that gays aren't seeking some kind of special accommodation or a change in what marriage is -- just the same cherished personal milestone others also seek.

"When you talk about gay couples wanting to make a promise of love and commitment, all of a sudden, you get 60 percent support," Erickson Hatalsky said. "In the focus groups, you could just watch their resistance melt. They would get this look on their face, thinking about an idealistic vision of marriage. It really softens them."

The other thing Erickson Hatalsky's research has found is that people in the middle are, like the president, "evolving" when it comes to gay marriage.

"A lot of people made fun of Obama for using that word, but folks in the middle see it the same way -- their viewpoint is changing," she said. "Everybody in this country thinks we're on a journey on this issue. Some think it's off a cliff, some on a primrose path, but everybody thinks we're on a journey."

Erickson Hatalsky was also struck by the way Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, has approached the issue: handling it with kid gloves. In interviews this week, Romney has reiterated his view that he opposes both gay marriage and civil unions, but rather than make a forceful argument for his position, he's emphasized the sensitivities around the issue and said he's OK with states allowing gay couples to have some domestic-partnership rights.

"He seemed to soft-pedal it a little bit, and he felt the need to answer with some other level of relationship recognition for gay couples," Erickson Hatalsky observed. "Ten years ago, any kind of relationship recognition was controversial. Now that's the opposition position. That's pretty striking."

It's also a change from how Romney once spoke about gay marriage. In a 2007 interview with Mike Wallace, for example, he leaned much more heavily into the religious aspect of the issue: "What's at the heart of my faith is a belief that there's a creator, that we're all children of the same God, and that fundamentally the relationship you have with your spouse is important and eternal," he said.

Today, Romney appears to realize that there's a danger of turning off moderates in allowing a flare-up of the culture wars or seeming to embrace a position of intolerance, Erickson Hatalsky said. In this, he's also in step with public opinion, she said: Moderate voters have gone, in the last few years, from not wanting to be associated with hard-core gay-marriage proponents to now not wanting to be associated with hard-core opponents, either.

"People want to be perfectly clear that they're not anti-gay," she said. "They talk about their gay friends and family members. They try to distance themselves from the hard-liners on the other side."

For Erickson Hatalsky personally, it has been a good couple of weeks. She recently got married in Washington and went on her honeymoon, only to come back to a major milestone in the issue she's been working on for years.

Obama's conversion, she said with a laugh, was "President Obama's wedding present to my wife and me."