Same-sex marriage is back as an election-year issue, thanks to its court-ordered legalization in California, and the issue could help Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
The potential boost comes from social conservatives, who have been lukewarm about the Arizona senator but might become energized by the issue and turn out to vote. They're more likely to vote for McCain than Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent.
“It probably helps McCain,” independent pollster Brad Coker said. “It probably increases the chances he'll get some additional conservative votes out of it.”
Yet it's not as solid a boost as it was for President Bush in 2004, when more Americans opposed gay marriage, and social conservatives surged to polling places to approve constitutional amendments banning it in 13 states, including such pivotal presidential election battlegrounds as Missouri and Ohio.
“This year is very different than 2004,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for gays, lesbians and transgenders.
He said other issues – such as Iraq, the economy and rising gasoline and food prices – had pushed marriage down on the national priority list. And Americans have grown somewhat more tolerant of same-sex marriage, he said.
Indeed, a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that the country still opposes gay marriage, but not by as much. The poll found 38 percent supporting gay marriage, up from 32 percent in 2004; and 49 percent opposing it, down from 56 percent in 2004.
The poll also found that the ranks of Americans who call the issue “very important” to their votes decreased slightly, from 32 percent in 2004 to 28percent today.
Another mitigating factor is that gay marriage is largely seen as a settled issue in the majority of states; 26 now have constitutional amendments banning it. “If it's already passed, it's a non-issue,” Coker said.
Ferrel Guillory, the director of the UNC Chapel Hill's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, noted that McCain lost roughly one out of four primary votes in North Carolina even after clinching the Republican nomination, calling it a sign that the senator needs to shore up his base.
North Carolina is one of 18 states that have laws banning gay marriage but not constitutional amendments.
“If we had another flurry of referenda in the states, it would help Republicans,” Guillory said.