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Saturday, May 12, 2012

How Will Obama's Support Play in MD?

In a column I wrote over 6 weeks ago, “Game Changer-in-Chief,” I indicated that there was at least a 50-50 chance the Obama would come out for marriage equality before the election and it could help in thwarting a referendum attempt by marriage equality opponents.
As we are now learning, Obama had already completed his evolution on marriage for same-sex couples months ago and was planning to make the announcement probably right before the Democratic Convention in September.  However, that decision to go public was accelerated by Vice President Biden’s declaration on Meet the Press that he is “absolutely comfortable” with marriage equality.

Although not on the schedule of his choice, the president made his historic announcement on May 9 (see front page story).  It was met with enormous enthusiasm from important components of the Democratic base: gays and lesbians, voters under 40, college educated, suburban women, Hollywood types, and yes, independents who lean towards marriage equality. 

Lacking the same level of enthusiasm this cycle that was evident in 2008, the revelation was the perfect catalyst to inject much needed fervor into the 2012 campaign.  Immediate tangible results followed: the president raised around $15 million at a Hollywood fundraiser hosted by George Clooney the next night.
It is unclear how the risks and rewards will eventually play out with the election less than six months away.  Some have speculated this announcement may cost Obama among working class voters in some battleground states.  I disagree. 

This election will be about the economy unless some international event changes the trajectory.  And Obama’s public support for marriage equality will continue to generate passion, which not only translates into dollars raised but also adds volunteers and “boots on the ground” to execute an already formidable ground plan.
How this news will play out in Maryland during the near-certain referendum battle in Maryland is also murky.   Polls don’t offer many clues as the voters in the Free State are virtually split on the question of marriage equality.  But with Obama being the first black president of the U.S., there is a unique dynamic to consider.

For the earlier column, I did receive some insight as a result of polling data from OpinionWorks.  African-Americans who comprise nearly 30 percent of the state’s population are more inclined to vote against marriage equality in a referendum.  And it is expected that with Obama on the ballot in November, higher than normal turnout among African-Americans is a slam-dunk.
The independent survey taken in mid-March reveals that in Baltimore City, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, voters oppose marriage equality 49 to 35 percent.  And among African-Americans statewide, those who oppose the law outweigh supporters by a margin of 48 to 29 percent.

Those are big deficits to overcome.  The Maryland Marriage Alliance who is partnering with the Maryland Catholic Conference has reached the halfway point in obtaining the requisite number of valid signatures to place the issue of marriage equality on the ballot in November.  Many African-American pastors are aligned with this organization and have used their churches to distribute petitions to volunteers and to conduct training.
Steve Raabe, President of OpinionWorks told me in late March that if President Obama were to publicly embrace marriage equality, it could influence those African-Americans who are “soft” on the issue.

“It is likely that people with the strongest feelings on this issue have already declared
themselves, so that the referendum battle will be waged over the small number in the middle who may be coming out to vote in the presidential race, but for whom this issue is not do or die,” Raabe explained.

Still, there needs to be a plan in place to target those “soft” voters within the African-American community.  Such a plan has not yet been publicly articulated to those who are seeking marriage equality.  A lack of outreach to African-American voters in California has been cited as one of the factors in the Proposition 8 debacle in 2008.  History must not be allowed to repeat itself in Maryland.  The persuadable “soft” voters should be targeted with a robust education campaign.

The Maryland Black Family Alliance (MBFA) met in late April with Josh Levin, the new campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, to discuss a strategy for reaching out to African-American voters, particularly in Baltimore.  Some who attended that meeting, however, voiced concerns that a clear plan has not yet been formulated. 

Levin did not respond to multiple requests to go on record to alleviate those concerns.

Nonetheless, Lea Gilmore, a founder of MBFA, who did not attend that particular meeting but participated in a follow-up meeting stated: “The MBFA is looking forward to working closely with referendum Campaign Manager Josh Levin and the marriage coalition. We will be an active, necessary and informative part of the campaign and have been assured no less. Maintaining and gaining more African-American support is crucial to a win. Of course, there have been missteps in the past, but we are looking forward and will work in partnership to ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters retain the legal right to marry in Maryland.”

As the clock ticks down towards the election, a considerable amount of work remains.  What marriage equality advocates need to do is frame the issue as one of “equal rights,” not “civil rights,” The use of the latter term has been a key obstacle in winning over African-Americans. 

In addition, emphasis must be made that religious institutions are protected by the law.  Some are still suspicious that they will be forced to officiate same-sex unions.  And according to the above poll, those who attend church once a week—regardless of race—oppose same-sex marriage by 58 per cent to 28 percent.

President Obama’s announcement could provide cover to those who are not deeply religious and may now find a reason to vote against the referendum. A fresh, new independent poll will offer us more insight into the prospects, but a strategy that is shared with the LGBT community must be in place and soon.

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