Last week, in a debate for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat, Republican nominee Thom Tillis was asked about the state’s constitutional amendment against gay marriage. The amendment, enacted through a 2012 ballot measure, has been tied up in court. Tillis said he would defend the amendment because “60 percent of the people of North Carolina” voted for it.
If 60 percent of North Carolinians favored the amendment, you’d expect Tillis to say more. He’s in a neck-and-neck race against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who opposes the amendment. He needs votes, and grabbing hold of a 60 percent issue is a great way to get them. Instead, Tillis brushed past the question in seven seconds. He called it a distraction and used his time to talk instead about economic policy, voter ID laws, and Hagan’s committee attendance record.
Why would a politician duck what he calls a 60 percent issue? Because it isn’t a 60 percent issue. North Carolina’s marriage amendment never had 60 percent support. Today, it doesn’t even have majority support.
Tillis’ verbatim answer, before he scampered away, was that “28 months ago, 60 percent of the people of North Carolina decided that they wanted to define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.”
As WRAL’s Mark Binker and Laura Leslie note, the state has nearly 10 million people. Altogether, 1.3 million people voted for the amendment. That’s only about 20 percent of North Carolina’s voters.
Would a broader electorate support the amendment? Not if they find out what’s in it. In his 7-second answer, Tillis said people who voted for the amendment did so “to define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.” But that’s not what the amendment said. It said “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” In other words, civil unions and domestic partnerships are also forbidden.
At the time of the referendum, two survey organizations – Elon University and Public Policy Polling – repeatedly asked North Carolina voters to choose among three positions. One position was “full marriage rights for same-sex couples.” The second position was “I oppose any legal recognition for same-sex couples.” The middle option was “civil unions or partnership for same-sex couples, but not full marriage rights.”
In every survey, 55 percent to 60 percent of respondents chose either gay marriage or the middle option. Support for the no-recognition position ranged from 29 percent to 42 percent.
If the amendment were put on the ballot this fall, it wouldn’t get near 60 percent. From March 2009 to March 2012, the percentage of North Carolinians who favored full marriage rights for same-sex couples rose from 21 to 38, as measured by Elon surveys. The percentage who opposed any legal recognition for these couples dropped from 44 to 29.
Since then, the tide has rolled on. That’s why Tillis ducked the question last week. For Republican politicians, gay marriage is no longer a 60 percent issue. It’s a seven-second issue. Even in North Carolina.