Gay Marriage and the Ground Game

Joseph M. Knippenberg

November 1, 2004

Liberal pundits have seized upon the much maligned exit polls to offer their explanation for the magnitude of Bush’s victory. It turns out, they say, that the evil Karl Rove used the wedge issue of gay marriage to spur culturally conservative voters to the polls. Bush won big, so the argument goes, by demonizing "the other" and turning up the heat in the culture war.

Color me unconvinced.

First of all, just before the election Bush told Charlie Gibson on ABC that he could live with civil unions, not exactly a move calculated to rev up the allegedly homophobic heartland. Indeed, some extremist Internet bulletin boards were abuzz with negative commentary in the immediate aftermath of that interview, which apparently swung a few votes in the direction of the Constitution Party. I bet John Kerry wished that more folks were rigidly intolerant of even the smallest deviation from the anti-gay line.

Second, a close examination of turnout data across the country suggests that the effect of gay marriage initiatives on state ballots was likely marginal, albeit with a couple of noteworthy exceptions.

Let’s start with the basics: Bush won 59.2 million votes, an improvement of 8.75 million (or 17.3%) over his 2000 performance. Kerry beat Gore’s vote totals by 4.7 million, a 9.2% improvement. With a very few exceptions, both candidates improved upon their comparable state vote totals in 2000. Kerry seems actually to have lost votes in Alabama, New York, Rhode Island, and perhaps in California and Washington. Bush lost votes in Alaska and perhaps in California and Washington. (I say "perhaps" in the case of these two states because I suspect that all the absentee and provisional ballots have yet to be counted.) Overall, Bush gained more turnout ground in 33 states, while Kerry outperformed Bush in seventeen and in D.C. In almost all the cases where Kerry outdid Bush’s improvements, the most obvious explanations are either that the Democratic candidate was starting with a very small base (e.g., Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota) or that Ralph Nader was not a factor this time around (e.g., Maine, Oregon, and Washington).

When you look specifically at states where a gay marriage amendment was on the ballot, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent and marked effect on the candidates’ performances. In Georgia (32.7%) and Oklahoma (28.8%), Bush improved substantially over his 2000 performance, in both cases widening his margin over his opponent. In five other states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Utah), Bush’s voting improvements were better than his national average by from one to 5.6%. In Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Oregon, Bush didn’t reach his national average voting improvement.

Kerry’s performances in states where gay marriage was on the ballot were also mixed. In Oklahoma and Mississippi, his improvements lagged behind his national numbers; in Arkansas, they tracked the national average very closely; elsewhere, the range was from roughly 2% above his average (Kentucky and Utah) to 11% (Georgia), 12.5 (Ohio), and 14.9% (Montana). In Montana, Ohio, and Oregon, Kerry actually gained ground on Bush, closing the gap in the first two and expanding the Democratic lead in the last one.

Where do these considerations leave us? Eight of the gay marriage amendment states are deep red. With one possible exception (Arkansas), Bush had a lock on their electoral votes with or without an amendment on the ballot. Of course, boosting the popular vote bolsters the argument for a national mandate, but there were only a couple of cases (Oklahoma and Georgia) where Bush’s margin improvements were substantially above his national average. As a Georgia voter, I received one telephone call and no pieces of literature urging me to vote for the gay marriage amendment, so I’m not convinced that it had much to do with our increases in turnout.

In the battleground states (Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon), the amendment won by the narrowest margins (57-43 in Oregon and by 3-2 margins in the other two). While the ballot initiatives may well have helped to energize the "values voters" (19% in Michigan. 22% in Oregon, and 23% in Ohio, roughly 80% of whom say they voted for the amendment), they may also have prompted the opposition to make greater efforts. This is especially true in Oregon, where the composition of the Kerry vote is almost as skewed against the amendment as that of the Bush vote is for it.

Indeed, I’m prepared to argue that the counter-mobilization against these amendments is at least as large a part of the Kerry coalition as mobilizing on their behalf is part of Bush’s. Four of the twelve states in which Kerry improved the most over Gore had gay marriage initiatives on the ballot, whereas only two of Bush’s top twelve had them.

In the end, each candidate made use of a multifaceted ground game, using various sorts of appeals to get out the vote. Moral issues were undoubtedly one element of the Bush campaign’s strategy, but opposition to gay marriage was only one part—and often a subordinate part—of a larger set of stances that were attractive to cultural and religious conservatives (the "values voters") who comprised roughly 35% of Bush’s winning coalition. Bush’s talk about the "culture of life," his repeated calls for individual responsibility and opportunity, and his sincere and (believe it or not) largely personal faith were also very appealing to these voters. On the other hand, in some states—among them the battlegrounds of Florida, New Jersey, and Nevada—Bush’s steadfast leadership in the global war on terror was crucial in mobilizing by far the largest portion of his voters.

Yes, Bush understands himself as an agent of cultural restoration, a theme he has emphasized since he first became a candidate in 1999. But his approach is emphatically not to demonize "the other." On Wednesday this week, he pledged to "uphold our deepest values of family and faith," which certainly means celebrating and privileging traditional marriage, but not necessarily denying to gay couples a legal structure in which to arrange and manage their domestic lives. This, the election revealed, is the broad American middle ground, regarded as hateful and fanatical only by the most extreme partisans of the other position. Yes, my friends in the blue cities and counties, there is love and toleration among us red state people, even as we cherish our moral truths. Get over the caricature you’ve drawn of George W. Bush (and, by extension, of us), and you might actually come to appreciate a few of our virtues and even come to like us.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.