Do Gay Rights Hurt Democrats?

In Jason’s post on DADT’s repeal, he noted:

One thing that history won’t remember, but that will certainly be true, is that the Democrats chose the single moment in all the possible permutations of the election cycle when it would cost them the very least — when an election has just been held, when it costs the least in their own members’ cushy seats, when many of them are leaving anyway, and when they can spend the next two years complaining about an agenda not of their own making.

In response, Jack Gillis argues that Jason’s position:

is beyond ridiculous. DADT and related gay rights issues have already cost the Democrats an incalcuable amount for over twenty years (almost thirty depending on how you take the subtext of “San Francisco Democrat” which dates to 1984), including, quite possibly, the White House in both 2000 and 2004. To be churlishly dismissive because they didn’t pay a higher price is indefensible.

I can’t say that I agree with either here, both of which assume that gay rights are a politically costly issue for Democrats.

With regards to Jason’s claim, I don’t think the lame-duck session passage of DADT repeal demonstrates political cowardice so much as it represents a response to legislative incentives combined with a need to hold on to a strong Democratic issue in an abysmal electoral year for the governing party.  

To be sure, in retrospect, I think that the Democrats could have and should have pushed for a straight up or down vote on it on January 21, 2009.  But history tells us that governing parties will make the issues on which they most vocally campaigned their first priority, save for emergent situations (e.g., massive economic collapse, which we of course had).  DADT repeal simply was not a major issue in the 2008 campaign, particularly not when compared to health care, financial reform, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even card check.  I suspect that the Dems also miscalculated the willingness of the GOP in the Senate to stand firm in opposition to anything they attempted, such that they figured DADT repeal would just harm their ability to pass other elements of their agenda even if they succeeded in passing it. 

But there was also little incentive for them to push too hard for it in the runup to the 2010 elections; it’s a 75-25 issue and has been for several years, so passing it just prior to the election would only succeed in removing one of the few issues they could actually campaign on in a year where they needed everything they could get.  I don’t think this is cowardly so much as it is just a function of politicians being politicians and responding to incentives.  It’s worth noting, indeed, that the other major issue that they knowingly left for the lame-duck session is START, which is likewise far more controversial in Washington than it is amongst the electorate at large, where it also has about a 3:1 advantage.  That issues with such overwhelming majorities would be politically risky for Democrats in Congress to tackle simply does not make sense.

So I disagree with Jason’s implication that the Dems were merely being cowardly and doing this at the moment it would cost them the least.  I think instead they were responding to systemic incentives (although those incentives are based on a political consultant-driven misperception about the utility of specific issues in national elections, which are ultimately a function of the economy and to a lesser extent, war).  There really would have been no cost to the Dems for pushing this earlier given the strength of public opinion in their favor on this issue. 

I likewise thus have to strongly disagree with Gillis’ argument that:

DADT and related gay rights issues have already cost the Democrats an incalcuable amount for over twenty years (almost thirty depending on how you take the subtext of “San Francisco Democrat” which dates to 1984), including, quite possibly, the White House in both 2000 and 2004. “

As noted above, DADT is a 70-30 issue, so I don’t see how it’s specifically an issue that is meaningfully costing Dems right now.  But that aside, I just don’t think it’s correct to say that Dems’ willingness (such as it exists) to support gay rights has cost them, in aggregate, over the recent past.*  It should be fairly clear by now that gay rights are the primary reason why gays overwhelmingly vote for Democrats (anywhere from 68% to 80% in recent elections); unlike other groups for which civil rights are a major issue, gays don’t tend to come from overwhelmingly similar socioeconomic or even educational backgrounds.  So without civil rights as an issue, there’s no reason to think that gays would be a coherent voting bloc at all. 

By contrast, opposition to gay rights is a significant motivating factor for only one group of the electorate, and that group is the die-hard social conservatives who would vote GOP no matter what.  Even with them, there’s also not much evidence that gay rights issues get them to the polls in a stronger number than they otherwise would vote, and certainly not in such a larger number as to offset the increase in turnout and support for Democrats from gay rights supporters (see below).  Other groups may tend to oppose gay rights, but it’s such a low-priority issue for them that, with the possible exception of SSM, there’s no reason to think that it factors into the equation at all.  For these groups, as with the vast majority of the electorate, the major factors that will influence their vote are the economy and, to a lesser extent, wars. Do Gay Rights Hurt Democrats?

The two specific examples Gillis cites are 2000 and 2004.  But, as screwed up and close as the election in 2000 was, I don’t think there’s any evidence that outside of Vermont (which Gore won easily) gay rights were even on the radar screen as an electorally significant issue.  SSM at that point had not been legalized in any states, and DOMA had passed four years earlier with overwhelming bipartisan support.  Of course, for the one group actually directly affected by gay rights, it was presumably still very much on the radar screen, and there was no doubt as to which of the two parties would be preferable on that front.   In other words, in 2000, there’s pretty good reason to believe that Dems’ less-crappy position on gay rights helped them far more than it hurt them.

One might think 2004 is a much stronger case for Gillis’ position, but I think it fails as well, especially to the extent his argument is that it was Democrats’ association with gay rights that cost them rather than merely that gay rights issues helped get out the GOP base more strongly.  Take a look, for instance, at this:

Consider the case of Ohio: John Kerrylost Ohio, a state with a ballot initiative and substantial effortsby the Christian right to mobilize voters. But Kerry won a greater percentage of the vote than Gore had (48.9 percent rather than 48.2 percent). Indeed, Bush lost vote share in each of the three battleground states with gay-marriage bans on the ballot, fallingfrom 49.7 percent of the overall two-party vote in these states in 2000 to 49.6 percent in 2004. In contrast, Bush gained vote share inthe battleground states that did not vote on gay marriage: in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Bush’s combined 50.4 percent of the vote represented a one-percentage-point increase since 2000.

At the statelevel, then, marriage referenda seem not to have worked to Bush’sadvantage. If we move down to the county level, we find even firmer support for this conclusion. In states with gay marriage on the ballot, Bush gained additional support in the counties he carried in2000. But in these same states he also lost votes in Democratic counties generally and—perhaps more surprisingly—in evenlydivided counties. The overall result is that the polarization of the electorate over gay marriage aided Kerry, not Bush.

(My emphasis).

Even if the results were the other way around, I don’t think one could lay it at the feet of Democrats’ association with same sex marriage.  To do so would be to mistake cause for effect.  Democratic politicians are, on the whole, pretty split on the issue of same sex marriage, with most – including the guy in the White House and the Dems’ previous nominee John Kerry – supporting civil unions over complete marriage equality, which also happens to be a position that is quite popular with the general electorate, and had at least plurality support in 2004; meanwhile, as that link shows, a ban on any recognition (the position typically associated with conservative GOP politicians) now has less support than does total marriage equality. 

Instead, the far simpler explanation would have been that people who are likely to turn out in increased numbers to vote on referenda banning same sex marriage and/or civil unions are people who are virtual locks to vote for any Republicans on the ballot no matter what issues are at stake.  But, of course, this is all academic, since the above-referenced study makes clear that anti-SSM/civil union referenda actually increased turnout more amongst liberals seeking to oppose the referenda than it increased turnout amongst conservatives seeking to pass them. 

And let’s be honest: the notion that gay rights are issues that tend to help Democrats more than Republicans should be intuitively true.  By and large, civil rights for gays have no conceivable adverse effects on anyone, no matter what the Maggie Gallaghers of the world claim.  But the lack of equal civil rights for gays has an obvious, direct, and appalling effect on a specific element of the electorate.  People, whatever their political worldview, show up to vote primarily because of things that they care about, things that they think will directly affect them.  In the case of gay rights, that means 3-4 percent of the electorate, and (to a lesser extent) the close friends and families thereof.  Even amongst social conservatives, few are going to be so consumed by their hatred of civil rights for gays as to make it the primary or decisive factor in their showing up to the polls to pull the lever for the guy with the (R) next to his name.

*Just to be clear: everything in this post is in reference to the effect of gay rights on Democrats nationally.  There may be occasional individual local races where gay rights directly hurt Democratic candidates.

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24 thoughts on “Do Gay Rights Hurt Democrats?

  1. I think it’s safe to say that support of gay rights has hurt Democrats in the past individually and as a party but that time has mostly passed and the issue is beginning to turn into an asset of sorts to the Dems and a small but growing liability to the GOP.
    It certainly appears to have been at least one of the rocks on which the credibility of the politically active christian community is foundering.

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    • In fact, Senate Democrats tried to put DADT repeal into the Defense authorization bill in late September–which is arguably the worst time, politically, to pass it, if you’re assuming it’s an electoral liability. The fact that that bill failed the cloture vote (barely!) is hardly an indictment of Senate Dems.*

      *Unless you want to argue that not only a) the inclusion of the DREAM Act in the same bill was politically insincere but b) the inclusion of the DREAM Act in the bill was intended to kill DADT. I have issues with argument (a), but argument (b) seems paranoid beyond common sense.

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  2. I more-or-less agree. The only caveat I have is that the gay marriage issue does hurt the Democrats right now. Not the legal aspect of it (civil unions are pretty accepted in most quarters), but the cultural issue and the M-word itself. I think this is aggravated by the sense that if they don’t win at the ballot-box then they will pursue non-democratic means. Even the 2004 election, where I do think that the gay marriage issue energized the electorate somewhat*, I think it had as much to do with the way that it happened rather than that it happened.

    The fact that the DADT-repeal passed when it did probably doesn’t help in this regard, but it’s popular enough that it probably won’t make much of a difference. In the longer term, I think it does help the Democrats. On the other hand, I also think that this is something that the GOP will drop like a hot potato when it ceases to be politically advantageous.

    On just about everything else, though, you’re right. When even the LDS church is backing employment/housing protections for gays, demonizing gays just isn’t a winning issue.

    * – The analysis you cite overlooks the fact that after 2002, the dynamic in Ohio was seriously changing. Kerry was poised to outperform Gore by a much more significant margin than he did. While Florida was moving to the right, Ohio was moving to the left with the hurting economy and the implosion of Taft and the state GOP. Kerry needed to do better than he did. Maybe this had more to do with 9/11 than gay marriage, but something came in the way of Kerry picking up a state he should have picked up.

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  3. I think you are right — at this point, a party that actively fights against gay rights is out of touch. If the Republican Party is changing, you will see this issue either become a non-issue for Republicans or it will become an issue of individual rights, falling under the general right to pursue happiness. If Republicans continue to fight against gay rights going forward, it will hurt them. As for SSM, the best the Republicans will likely ever do is say it’s a state issue, but this will become a problem for them if they don’t do something to take an open position. If the Democrats don’t do something about the SSM issue, it will be a problem for them too. It appears that society is approaching a neutral position on SSM and that pretty soon it could be that society asks for a political solution if the gay community can garner the sympathy and support. I might be wrong, but I just don’t see the majority of the public opposing gay rights advancement.

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    • Indeed, as a long-view issue the Democrats are quite wise to support gay rights. They are much wiser to support immigrant issues and their success with minority voters is extremely important to their electoral success. This may be the only bump in the road when it comes to SSM. The labor and minority vote may not be the die-hard social conservative base of the GOP, but they do tend to vote more socially conservative than many in the Democratic party. I’m not sure if support for gay rights has hurt Democrats much with black or blue-collar voters, however. Bread and butter issues tend to be more important.

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      • That’s not quite true among the union membership.
        First, let’s say that there are basically three types of unions: public sector unions, shop unions, and trade unions. Each one is very different.
        I’m talking about trade unions here.
        Although the official AFL-CIO position is almost always to support the Democrat, there’s a lot of support among the membership for Republicans. And the one issue they care about more than anything else is guns.
        Trade union membership does tend to watch the decisions of the labor board a lot closer than the general populace, and that serves to moderate the effect a bit when things get too far out of whack.
        Bread-and-butter might be what you get from the mouthpieces. It’s really about guns.

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    • Really, I think the fight is over. Seriously. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.
      The only part left to decide is the terms of victory. It’s either going to be done gracefully or irresponsibly.
      That said, there is a certain amount of resistance, and that measure of resistance will occur at one point or another, regardless.
      I don’t really care about SSM one way or another. I care about whether they’re going to screw things up in the process.
      I don’t believe that marriage is a right, and I don’t believe the federal government has any business in it, whether to protect it or prohibit it. Well, other than making sure that one state recognizes the issuing authority of another state.
      But I don’t want to see something struck down like requiring people over 80 to take a vision test every two years to get their driver’s licenses renewed because some new right was discovered.

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  4. Who is helped or hurt by an issue depends on what time frame you view the question. On a short time frame republicans have little choice but to oppose gay rights. It energizes the base and wins current elections. While it is true that the republican base isn’t going to vote democrat it is also true that they may not vote at all. More than that a republican can’t get passed the primaries without not only winning but energizing the base.

    Democrats win the issue on a longer time frame. The changing demographics and attitudes of the American people is hard to miss.

    Now what seems to have happened is that there is no election near and republicans can take a more long term view. They could have stopped the vote on DADT but there was no short term gain only a long term cost. They were in a position to let the democrats pass it without having to vote for it themselves. The democrats can take the short term advantage and pass it.

    Now if Obama had pushed to pass it from the beginning then the republicans probably could not have allowed it. They could not pass up the short term gain of defeating him for the long term gain of getting rid of the long term cost of the issue. Instead Obama worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork with the military and others. I don’t know if this was a plan or if this is just the way things worked out but I don’t think it could have happened any other way.

    Politics, it’s like a game of chess between paranoid schizophrenics. At times very complex and convoluted but always deeply disturbing.

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    • Instead Obama worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork with the military and others. I don’t know if this was a plan or if this is just the way things worked out but I don’t think it could have happened any other way.

      John Berry is the head of OPM, and so the highest ranking openly gay person serving in the Obama Administration. He came to my workplace in June and gave a speech, and then took questions. One of the questions was about Obama’s strategy for DADT repeal and other items. He claimed that working with the Pentagon and military leaders was Obama’s explicit strategy. Another aspect of Obama’s strategy on gay rights issues was to only work one thing at a time. The first gay rights issue they worked was hate crimes legislation, which I don’t think was a good choice, but most of the gay rights community did want. So, that was a political success. Then, Obama shifted his resources to DADT and has finally won that.

      So, Obama has gotten everything he’s tried to get on gay rights. I don’t think it was a good strategy, but I’m not sure of that–maybe a strategy of working on multiple issues would have resulted in no victories.

      As for the reasons why DADT was repealed in the lame duck session, I agree with ppnl’s assessment that Republicans only let it through when they could most afford to.

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  5. This preferred strategy of a stand-alone vote on January 21st is unhinged from the reality of that time. There were not 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, because the Franken-Coleman recount held the MN seat in limbo until July. Do you really think any of the Republicans who voted for cloture this time would have done so then? Please name names, then. The stimulus bill gave all the cover needed for Republicans who wanted to claim higher priorities in order to obstruct. ppnl has it right; the timing was what allowed the Republicans to come along.

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  6. There really would have been no cost to the Dems for pushing this earlier given the strength of public opinion in their favor on this issue.

    I can’t say that I agree. My sense is that the 75% favoring repeal is not a highly motivated group. They’re persuadable to the other side and maybe many of them only even answer this way because it’s the good, politically correct way to answer.

    The 25%, on the other hand, appears convinced that the U.S. military could well fall apart if gays get to serve openly. Are they likely to be right? Even if they are likely to be wrong, it might still be a good idea to side with them, owing to some fairly brutal cost-benefit analysis.

    In short, I expect that having passed the repeal will hurt the Democrats, at least for the next half-year to a year, until such time as it becomes apparent that the military isn’t falling apart (or, not over this, anyway).

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  7. I tend to agree that the downside for Democrats is greater political mobilization and activity of the hard right social conservatives. With no immediate elections coming up, the timing of the repeal was good in that respect, but I expect an impetus in rhetoric and resultant fundraising, whipped up by Townhall-style ideologues.

    Unlike Jason, I don’t believe the passage will send more people on the cusp into opposition. The (seemingly slow – but amazingly fast compared to past social changes) changing of mindsets occurring as a result of open homosexuality in society continues to coopt reasonable people into the equality argument.

    Ten years ago, my state Republican party adopted a platform position that homosexuality should be recriminalized after our state supreme court found it unconstitutional. Now, that position is an embarrassment, and the state party’s position is that it hasn’t been removed because no one has brought it up or thought about it lately, but that it certainly ought to be “looked at”. My friends who are Republicans plan on removing it at the next convention, in June 2012. Whether they accomplish this will be an interesting marker.

    While these decent, traditionalist people were gradually moving in the direction of equality on their own, for some reason seeing my husband and me and our little baby daughter together, a family just like theirs, makes a big difference. We’re not abstract. We’re real people, their neighbors. And we’re not singing show tunes in assless chaps. We are just like them.

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    • People think of funboys in bondage gear singing Streisand tunes because that’s the only image of homosexuality they have. There simply aren’t any other examples. It’s like that old Onion article about “gay pride parade sets acceptance of gays back by 20 years”.

      Now, you can argue about who’s to blame for this–the media for presenting the loopy side of the issue, or these people for not seeking out other perspectives–but it’s not like it’s hard to understand where the fear comes from, and why something as simple as seeing you can change everything.

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    • Yes, more than Hollywood or political correctness or university diversity courses I feel that the biggest mover of change on the gay issue is the growing unwillingness of gay people to hide who they are from their friends and neighbors anymore. It’s really hard to hate/fear gays when you know them.

      Of course the more the ice thaws the more people are comfortable coming out which makes the environment become even more amicable to coming out. It’s a self perpetuating cycle.

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  8. Wow, you’re as wrong as can be on this. I wish you were correct, but this quote shows you far out of touch with social conservatives:

    “Even amongst social conservatives, few are going to be so consumed by their hatred of civil rights for gays as to make it the primary or decisive factor in their showing up to the polls…”

    Among the zillion Mormons I know, anti-gay politics are the most important political issue there is – because their prophets tell them that it is. For Prop. 8 in 2008, hundreds of them that I know and never care to see again donated money and lots and lots of time – not to mention their church meetings – to that campaign, and most of them had never made a political donation before (except anti-gay Prop. 22 a few years before, and anti-ERA in the ’70s, both at their church’s insistence,). When I told California Mormons in 2006 that I was going to Vermont, the gay civil unions horror and offense was their number one response, even before “good luck,” or “we’ll miss you” or other normalities.

    And in Maine, the Catholic bishop – whose diocese had scores of priests accused of sexual abuse of children – made “you must go vote and you must vote against the gays” his fatwa, and it worked, and the flock showed up at polls en masse, even though that order was coming from the same people who had raped the Catholic children of Maine for generations.

    The sad fact is that for the authoritarian religious leaders, nothing makes them more powerful than the fear they can stir up with anti-gay lies, and that plays far to the favor of Republicans on the ballot. They are sick and wrong and dishonest with themselves and others, but they are extremely effective.

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    • I don’t think this really addresses my point. The quote you cite concludes “…to pull the lever for the guy with the (R) next to his name.” This is an important qualifier. I have no doubt that some social conservatives (and in some specific locales, many) will show up to the polls in order to vote on a referendum before them that applies to gay rights. But that is a separate issue from whether they show up to the polls in order to vote against Democrats because of Democrats’ positions on gay rights.

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  9. I suspect you’re right that Democrats have lost some because of their general support for gay rights, but I suspect the GOP has also lost because of their general anti-gay stance. Notice that few Republicans campaign on an actively anti-gay agenda (for example, making a lot of noise about ‘the gay agenda’, trying to pass explicitly anti-gay laws like Anita Bryant did in the 70’s). Instead when Republicans take anti-gay stances, they try to frame them as being neutral. Opposing SSM is cast as ‘letting voters, not judges decide’ or ‘preserving marriage as it now stands’ even if the actual language of the bills they sometimes support goes beyond that (infringing on the rights of gay couples to use contracts to mirror some aspects of marriage). Opposing gays in the military is depicted purely as an issue about ‘reddiness’ or ‘unit cohesion’….

    This makes the ‘cost’ aspect somewhat questionable. Yes Kerry might have won Ohio and the election if Democrats were not seen as the go to party for gay rights. But could Kerry have won everything else he did win if the Democrats were not the go to party for gay rights? Maybe if Kerry was anti-gay in Ohio but pro-gay rights everywhere else he could have won in 2004…but I doubt even Republicans could have pulled off such a feat of incoherence.

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  10. *Just to be clear

    Rarely have I read such nonsense. There has been a culture war underway in this country for almost 40 years. Gay rights and abortion — or rather opposition to gay rights and abortion — have helped transform this nation to the decided advantage of one political party.

    Hard to believe you didn’t notice.

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    • No one would deny the existence of the culture wars. Few, if any, would deny that the Right fights those culture wars with far more fury and anger than the Left. Perhaps those culture war issues gave the Republican Party some benefit in the early going, but the evidence that they have, on net, benefited the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party, especially in the last 10-20 years, seems to be lacking. It’s no secret that there are far more conservative Democrats than there are liberal Republicans. Culture war issues may well, in aggregate, motivate the conservative GOP base (though I doubt the impact of any one such issue would be noticeable), but adopting them whole hog seems to do far more harm to the GOP than it does good – witness Christine O’Donnell’s shellacking and Sharron Angle’s loss to a man who would have otherwise lost to a piece of rock, to say nothing of Carl Paladino’s performance. The culture war fighting GOP simply is not very successful outside of the Bible Belt (by and large, the GOP candidates who won outside of the Bible Belt did so while centering their campaigns almost entirely on fiscal conservatism). There’s a reason for this: declare war on a segment of Americans and that segment of Americans aren’t going to want to vote for you no matter what their other agreements with you; declare war on numerous segments of Americans and numerous segments of Americans aren’t going to want to vote for you no matter what their other agreements with you.

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      • What you say is true but the republican party is structurally required to declare war on segments of Americans. It is a requirement of the authoritarian personality that they must seek out segments to identify as an out group. Some republicans understand this problem but the base is so dominated by authoritarian followers that there is nothing they can do.

        Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle are perfect examples. The party did not want them and in some cases actively worked against them. Anyone with half a brain could see what a disaster they were. Yet any attempt to control the beast called the republican base leads to disaster.

        In the long term this is destroying the republican party. In the short term republicans win a lot of elections and mainstream a load of crazy.

        Again who wins and loses depends on the time frame that you look at. Long term the republicans would have profited if they had renounced O’Donnell and actively campaigned for the democrat. Short term they would risk alienating the entire tea party moment and put the house at risk.

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