Whether lesser candidates are pulled to victory by the coattails of a stronger candidate is a frequent subject in discussions of American elections. Less common is the notion that issues can have coattails for candidates to ride. But there’s considerable evidence that the gay-marriage issue — on the ballot in 11 states, including Arkansas, Nov. 2 and a hot topic nationwide — benefitted the candidacies of President Bush and other conservative Republicans.
And there are other reasons for distress among liberal opponents of constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, such as Amendment 3 in Arkansas, which won the approval of three-fourths of Arkansas voters. (Similar proposals racked up similar margins of victory elsewhere, while conservative Republicans like Bush, who campaigned against gay marriage, also were winning or running more strongly than had been expected.) The conventional wisdom among liberals and moderates is that Arkansans and Americans will one day repudiate these anti-gay measures, just as they eventually repudiated segregationist measures that had been adopted by popular vote. Evidence suggests that day may be a long way off.
The Arkansas Poll, taken by the University of Arkansas shortly before the election, showed that 93 percent of Bush supporters also supported Amendment 3. Bush carried the state with 54 percent of the vote. (Even 56 percent of John Kerry supporters were for Amendment 3.) The Arkansas Poll also showed that of the four issues on the Arkansas ballot, the amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman motivated voters to go to the polls far more than any of the others. No one can say for sure that Bush’s voters wouldn’t all have come out to vote for him anyway. But Janine Parry, associate professor of political science at the UA and director of the Arkansas Poll, says that the data are “highly suggestive” that Amendment 3 brought out voters who then proceeded to vote for Bush too.
Parry notes that “Everybody thought the Democrats would benefit from a high turnout. Historically, that’s been true.” Not this year. “All those conservatives who voted were motivated by something,” Parry said. “And they sure seemed particularly interested in the gay-marriage issue.”
Yes, and a couple of Arkansas races reflected that interest pretty clearly. Blanche Lincoln is an incumbent U.S. senator, a well-known moderate who had $6 million to spend and who ran an exhaustive campaign of television ads and personal appearances. Her opponent, Republican state Sen. Jim Holt, was practically unknown (with good reason), had $97,000 to spend, and hardly campaigned at all. He got 44 percent of the vote against Lincoln, and actually carried 19 of the state’s 75 counties. State Rep. Marvin Parks was in a similar position running against fourth-term congressman Vic Snyder, except that rather than being unknown, Parks was rather widely known in an unfavorable way — for questionable practices involving state expense allowances. Even the arch-Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page couldn’t stomach Parks, and endorsed Snyder, usually one of its favorite targets. Parks got 42 percent of the vote and carried three counties in the eight-county district. Both Holt and Parks were essentially one-issue candidates, and that issue was gay marriage.
Nationwide, Bush made substantial gains among Hispanic voters, getting 44 percent of the Hispanic vote this year compared to 35 percent four years ago, according to exit polls conducted by the Associated Press and television networks. Some analysts say that Bush’s emphasis on “moral values” made the difference. For both Catholics and conservative evangelicals, Hispanic and white, “moral values” generally include opposition to gay marriage and to abortion. This is why the Protestant Bush got 57 percent of the Catholic vote in Arkansas, compared to 42 percent for the Catholic Kerry, according to CNN exit polls.
Stacy Fletcher, a Little Rock lawyer, was a leader of Arkansans for Human Rights, a group formed to oppose Amendment 3. She said she was not disheartened nor particularly surprised by the results in Arkansas and other states that approved similar amendments by similarly large margins.
“I’m not happy with the outcome because the amendment is discriminatory and 750,000 Arkansans voted for it,” Fletcher said. “I’m disappointed that so many states feel the need to add discriminatory measures to their constitutions. But I’m happy that 250,000 Arkansans voted against it. I think that’s pretty good given the fact that we had about six months to persuade people. While we were out campaigning, we met a lot of positive people.”
Liberals and moderates say that the younger generation accepts gays and will eventually overturn anti-gay laws. There’s some truth to the part about acceptance, but maybe not enough for gay-rights supporters to be comfortable with. According to the Arkansas Poll, 59 percent of Arkansans in the 18-24 age bracket supported Amendment 3, a solid majority, though less than the two-thirds approval rate in the 25-34 bracket, and way less than the 80 percent rates found in the older groupings. Fletcher said of the 25-34 voters: “We found that when we met them as people and talked to them personally, that tended to sway them more than theoretical arguments. They saw that I’m trying to live a life that’s happy and protected, the same life that everyone else wants. When you realize the person being discriminated against is like you, it makes it harder to discriminate. Not impossible, but harder.”
The black vote is a problem, Fletcher concedes. Blacks are generally a reliable faction in liberal/moderate politics. But many blacks vote conservative on gay issues, perhaps influenced by conservative black clergy, although there are some black clergy who are supportive of gay rights. According to the Arkansas Poll, 69 percent of blacks favored Amendment 3 — not quite as high an approval rating as for whites, but high. Especially considering that 94 percent of blacks, a Clinton-like number, voted for Kerry, according to CNN.
“A lot of the African-American community does not want to equate gay civil rights with their own civil rights movement,” Fletcher said. “I’m assuming there’s a cultural reason I don’t understand. The African-American gays and lesbians I know are very closeted.”
Fletcher said that some people say the reason gay civil rights and black civil rights aren’t considered comparable is that “race is something you can’t change. You can easily identify an African-American person by his skin color. But you can’t usually spot gays and lesbians just by looking at them. So people think it’s not as pervasive, it’s something you can change, it’s not as serious as the problem of racial discrimination.”
Fletcher and Parry agree that there’ll be a huge wave of litigation, in Arkansas and across the country, challenging the anti-gay-marriage laws. It will be argued that that the laws are discriminatory, and thus violative of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, but Parry thinks even more important will be the “full faith and credit” provisions of the Constitution governing relations between the states. This has historically meant that states recognize each other’s marriages. “It’s one of the principles of federalism that states honor each other’s contracts,” Parry said, though she added that the Supreme Court has made some exceptions.
Fletcher said she was optimistic that the gay rights movement would prevail in the long haul. Even with a Scalia Supreme Court, and Bush poised to appoint more Scalias? (On a recent visit to Little Rock, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said that gay marriage was an issue the courts should stay out of, leaving the matter to the voters.)
“The timing of this is not the best for the gay and lesbian community,” Fletcher said. “Bush’s agenda and his court appointments will make it more difficult. With the increased control of Congress by the Republicans, it’ll be harder to block judicial appointments. So everything will be a whole lot harder.”
It will, and there’s a long way to go. It should be remembered that voters didn’t renounce the old segregation laws they’d adopted previously until many years after the courts had invalidated those laws, and after the entertainment media had spent years portraying racial bias as the worst of all sins. Neither courts nor media have done as much with sexual-orientation bias.
Still, Fletcher says, “I have faith in Americans, and I have faith in Arkansans. I believe we really don’t want to discriminate. I wish we could get our rights without having to go through the rough process of litigation, but at least we have the process through which it can happen.”
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