WASHINGTON — At another time, the ruling overturning California's ban on same sex marriages might have landed with the force of a political earthquake. Instead, the relatively restrained response underscores both the singular economic focus of this year's elections and the shifting politics of one of the country's major social issues.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans appear eager to try to turn the California decision into a November rallying cry. Many Democrats who otherwise strongly support gay rights still are reluctant to advocate for same sex marriages, President Obama being the most prominent example. Many Republicans believe their conservative base is already well motivated. For now they prefer to stay away from the kind of wedge-issue politics that were once a hallmark of their campaigns.
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, said the ruling by federal district court Judge Vaughn Walker declaring California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional will have only a modest effect in motivating conservatives who care deeply about social issues. "They are already so stoked to vote in the election it is hard to imagine it will make a big difference," he said.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, came to a similar conclusion. "The impact is minimal," he said. "Certainly compared to what it might have been in other years and in other circumstances. The economy is such a dominant issue and people are so focused on the day-to-day challenges in life that I think this will pale in comparison."
That has often not been the case when the courts interjected social issues in the middle of a campaign year. In 1989, the Supreme Court's decision in Webster v Reproductive Health Services, which gave states the authority to restrict abortions inflamed the off-year elections and became a central issue in campaigns across the country. The case triggered fears among abortion rights advocates that Roe v Wade could be overturned.
Republicans responded to the 2003 decision in Massachusetts legalizing same sex marriages by launching ballot initiatives in many other states and stepping up calls for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Then-President George W. Bush endorsed the amendment during his 2004 reelection campaign. Eleven states approved such initiatives that year and some analysts believe Bush won Ohio and therefore the election on the strength of conservative turnout mobilizing in part because of the marriage ban initiative on the ballot.
No such reaction appears forthcoming to the California ruling. Republican candidates may use the California ruling to reach selected voters. But the strategy will be one of micro-targeting rather than broad messaging. Individual candidates in more conservative districts may highlight the issue and refer to the California decision, but few GOP leaders have stepped forward since Wednesday to suggest that this will become a major talking point for the fall.
"Republicans are better off focusing on fiscal issues — economy, spending, taxes, debt — in this political environment," said a Republican who is helping to guide strategy for the party. "For the first time in years, Republicans have regained their credibility as the party of fiscal responsibility, and most voters are concerned with the direction of our country's economy, so it could backfire with independent voters if the campaigns get bogged down on immigration or marriage."
Friday's unemployment report helped to put the campaign in perspective. The anemic jobs growth last month, coupled with a downward revision in the number of jobs created in June, underscored the sluggishness of the recovery and highlighted the central problem for Obama and the Democrats this fall. Republican "swing voters are simply too preoccupied (with the economy) to care about the culture wars," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist.
The battle over same sex marriage can await another election. Both sides know that Walker's sweeping ruling is but a first step in a legal conflict that will almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court. State rulings no longer have the impact that the Massachusetts decision did in 2003 because so many states have already acted.
By now, 41 states have approved legislation defining marriage as between a man and a woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty have put such language into their state constitutions. Just six states have approved legislation allowing such marriages.
Overall, public opinion remains opposed to same sex marriages. But there has been a dramatic move toward greater support over the past decade, and particularly in the last few years. Two Columbia University political scientists — Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips — have tracked the movement and the results are available on the website www.fivethirtyeight.com.
Lax's and Phillips's research reveals not only the change in public opinion but also the widespread geographic diversity of views. Although opposition to gay marriage has diminished all across the country over time, as of a year ago majority support existed in only a handful of Northeastern states and California. In some southern states, roughly three-quarters of the population still opposed same sex marriages.
More significant for the future is the deep generational divide. Lax and Phillips also charted public opinion by age. As of 2008, there were 38 states where a majority of those between ages 18 and 29 expressed support for same sex marriages. In 23 states, at least 50 percent of those between ages 30 and 44 also backed such marriages. In no state were more than 35 percent of those over age 65 in favor of gay marriages.
That's the more telling reason why Republicans are now conflicted about how to handle the issue in the future. They know the issue can motivate conservatives. Privately many say they can see where the issue is heading and fear they will be on the losing side of public opinion at some point in the future.
For this election, Republicans can concentrate happily on issues of the economy and government debt and deficits. The future will be more problematic both for tentative Democrats and wary Republicans.