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Is President Obama’s Support for Gay Marriage a Political Ploy or a Moral Choice?

June 8, 2012

The declaration of support for gay marriage, recently articulated by President Obama,  gratified some, astonished others, and drew both great praise and great condemnation. Was this a President demonstrating the moral courage to do what he believed right, or was it a political ploy driven by electoral expediency? Nobody can look into the soul of the President to answer that question for sure, but we can at least appeal to evidence to assess the real and potential impacts of the arguably unexpected announcement.

The immediate effect of this new stance, as reflected in the opinion polling, was mixed. Daily tracking polls by Gallup (2,2000 registered voters) and Rasmussen (1,500 ‘likely’ voters) offered conflicting evidence, with Gallup noting a small shift to President Obama and Rasmussen a bigger immediate shift to Governor Romney. If we want to artificially split the tie, we have a CBS News/New York Times call-back poll of 562 registered voters first interviewed on April 13-17 which indicated a small swing to Romney over the preceding month. When asked whether the declaration of support would make respondents more or less likely to vote for the President, the response was marginally negative, though not enough to worry his campaign. More significantly, perhaps, is the finding in this poll that a majority of the voting public (including 70% of self-declared ‘Independent’ voters) attributed the motivation of the announcement to political calculation.

If the public is right in this view, one might suppose that the President’s new position would lead to an uptick in expectations of an Obama victory this November. Yet I discern no evidence of this in either the polling or the betting. The polling, as explained, is at best a mixed bag, while the professional money, whether gauged by the action on the betting / trading exchanges (sometimes known as prediction markets) like Betfair and Intrade, or with bookmakers,  moved noticeably, if nowhere near decisively, away from the Democrat. As of a week after the Obama announcement, the money flowing through Betfair still indicated about a 62 per cent probability of re-election for the President, similar to that given spread bookmaker, Sporting Index. Intrade had his chances down to 58 per cent. In each case, this is a few points down on the situation pre-announcement. To put this in context, Governor Romney was still given not a whole lot more than a 1 in 3 chance or so of being elected President, but these movements in what were previously pretty stable markets are certainly noteworthy.

So if the President’s declaration was borne out of political calculation, what was the calculation? For one explanation, we might look to that part of the equation which contains campaign funding. In particular, we might look at the relatively recent legalisation of SuperPAC money by the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court (in the ‘Citizens United’ decision), whereby individuals and corporations can channel unlimited contributions to groups working to promote particular political agendas, notably through negative advertising against opposition candidates.

The important point here is that the weight of SuperPAC money is expected to heavily favour Republican candidates in general and Governor Romney in particular. To this extent it is arguably no coincidence that the Supreme Court was divided 5-4 on ‘party’ lines on this issue. Either way, the decision does tend to force the hand of candidates to court money by appealing to the wealthiest members of a candidate’s political base, which sometimes entails drawing clearer and less nuanced distinctions than perhaps would otherwise be optimal political strategy. To this extent, there is an irony in that conservative legal opinion on campaign finance might have triggered the exact opposite of conservative lay opinion on the issue of gay marriage. Unless, that is, the consequence is the election of a candidate who backs the idea of a constitutional amendment to enshrine marriage as exclusively the preserve of a man and a woman. There is, of course, another explanation for the Obama declaration. Simply put, that there is still enough doubt about the electoral impact of the new stance on gay marriage to allow the President to engage in a bit of good old-fashioned leadership. Now that’s a radical thought!

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