Maryland’s law legalizing same-sex marriage will almost certainly be on the ballot in November after opponents led by the National Organization for Marriage and the Maryland Marriage Alliance turned in 113,000 signatures, more than twice the number needed to put the issue to a vote.
No question, the signature haul was a big win for those hoping to overturn the law; but there are signs that public attitudes in Maryland are shifting in favor of gay marriage. Last week, a PPP poll conducted on behalf of Marylanders for Marriage Equality had a majority of voters (57-37 percent) saying they would vote in favor of a law that would allow gays and lesbians to legally marry. The same poll showed a dramatic reversal in attitudes among a majority of black voters, who in the space of two months have gone from saying they’d oppose such a law (by a margin of 56-39 percent) to saying they’d support it (55-36 percent). No doubt President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality, as well as those by the NAACP and Colin Powell (and let’s not forget Jay-Z), have something to do with those numbers.
It’s way too early to start celebrating, though. As Nate Silver at The New York Times pointed out, there are large margins of error in polling groups with small sample sizes, like African Americans. There’s also been, on average, a seven percentage point gap between how marriage equality polls and what winds up happening in a referendum. The AP also pointed out on Monday that in all 32 states where gay marriage has been on the ballot, it has failed. Most of these votes were between 2004-2008, though more recently Maine voted down a marriage equality law in 2009, and North Carolina approved a ban on same-sex marriage just this month.
Kevin Nix, the spokesperson for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, says that North Carolina aside, even since 2009 there’s been such a “sea change” in public opinion on same-sex marriage that things might look a little different come November. “I think that we’ve seen a gap in the past, but I think given the environment that we’re in, and how quickly public opinion has changed in the past few years, I think that votes will match up with the polling data.”
“Polls go up and down,” he told me, “these will go up and down, but I still think there’s been a significant shift from before the president made his endorsement to after.”
Frank Schubert, the political director for the anti-marriage equality National Organization for Marriage, acknowledged that Obama’s endorsement possibly caused “a temporary uptick in support for same-sex marriage,” but said he doesn’t think it will be lasting or that there’s been any permanent change in African Americans’ attitudes. “They didn’t support same-sex marriage before the president’s announcement,” he told me, “and I don’t believe they will after it.”
It’s no secret that a key part of NOM’s strategy – in Maryland and elsewhere – has been to galvanize black voters against gay marriage. Indeed, a memo obtained by the Human Rights Campaign in March described efforts “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks – two key Democratic constituencies.” This latest polling would suggest that’s not working.
Schubert said that the memo was “poorly worded,” and “never should have been written,” but that “it was intended to reflect the reality that same-sex marriage divides the Democratic coalition in very important ways, including African-Americans, Latino and other ethnic voters at odds with their moral and religious views.” But, he told me, in every campaign he’s managed in the past, “there’s always some new hook, there’s always something that’s changed. Every time PPP comes out with a poll and says ‘Oh, we’re going to lose,’ and the reality is none of it is true. There is no fundamental change in the direction of the country on same-sex marriage. The country is very closely divided on this issue.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll from last week shows that the “closely divided” country is getting less and less divided, with 53 percent of Americans saying gay marriage should be legal, compared with 39 percent who are opposed – a record low.