Will New Jersey Gay Decision Be a National Factor in the Midterm Elections?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pleased at least two constituencies on Wednesday: gay couples in the state, who won fuller legal rights; and political pundits, who got fresh fodder for their pre-election pontificating.

Will gay marriage be the sleeper issue of the 2006 election, the one that motivates sullen -- and chronically ill-defined -- "values voters," deflects attention from the Iraq war, and lifts the Republican Party out of its doldrums?

Don't bet on it.

While gay marriage is broadly unpopular in this country, there's more chatter than platter in its alleged impact on election politics.

In 2004, voters approved initiatives banning gay marriage in 11 states, and President Bush carried nine of them.

But despite claims to the contrary, there's no compelling evidence that those initiatives boosted turnout disproportionately in Bush's favor.

Indeed there are good data to the contrary.

My own analysis of the 2004 exit poll results, presented at Stanford University on Nov. 9, 2004, found no consistent boost in turnout by pro-Bush groups -- conservatives, Republicans, and churchgoing white Protestants -- in states with gay-marriage initiatives.

An effect, to be an effect, should be consistent.

Nationally, Bush's greatest gain in 2004 came not among the highly churched, but among infrequent churchgoers. That election was about terrorism.

At the same conference, Stanford professor Simon Jackman found disproportionately higher turnout in the gay-marriage initiative states, but not in either candidate's favor; the initiatives, he reported, had "no association with change in Bush vote share."

In crucial Ohio, similarly, Jackman's county-level analysis found no relationship between higher voter turnout and support for the state's gay-marriage initiative.

More recently, last July, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center described the notion that '04's gay-marriage initiatives had a broad spillover effect on the presidential race as "anchored more in myth than reality."

Taylor suggested that, only "in the land of conjecture," gay marriage "might -- might" have had an impact in Ohio.

Which takes us to 2006.

Gay-marriage initiatives are on the ballot in eight more states this year -- New Jersey is not among them.

All would ban gay marriage, but they differ on gay civil unions. Indeed legally recognized civil unions may represent the middle ground where compromise on the issue could occur.

Civil unions apparently would satisfy the New Jersey court's ruling. They also could satisfy the New Jersey public: In a Rutgers-Eagleton poll, this summer, 65 percent of New Jerseyans supported civil unions for gay couples.

Fewer, but still 50 percent, supported gay marriages.

Gay unions win less support in the country more broadly. Among all Americans, in a poll we did in June, civil unions got about an even split -- 45 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed.

Support was 20 points lower than in New Jersey, which is substantially less conservative than the country overall.

While civil unions fall short of majority support, gay marriage does worse nationally -- 36 percent of Americans in favor, 58 percent opposed.

In both cases, intensity of sentiment is much greater among opponents.

While such attitudes have been steady lately, social norms can change.

Support for gay marriage increased from 12 percent in a General Social Survey poll in 1988 to 31 percent in 2004.

In 1963, 63 percent of whites in a GSS study favored laws banning marriages between blacks and whites.

Ten years later, that was down to 37 percent. By 2002, 11 percent still clung to this view.

Whatever it means for social conventions in the future, the New Jersey ruling fits nicely into the political speculation of the day.

There's been talk lately of "values voters" -- by which we think people really mean either conservative Christians, or evangelical white Protestants -- being demotivated to vote this year.

Maybe, the line goes, concern about gay marriage will fire them up.

One problem with that scenario is that our own polling, at least, hasn't shown any demotivation in the first place.

Evangelical white Protestants account for 20 percent of likely voters in our latest ABC News/Washington Post survey, same as their share of the actual turnout in 2004.

They express as much enthusiasm as anyone else.

The other problem is that, since 11 gay-marriage initiatives didn't boost their turnout in 2006, it's hard to see why eight would this year.

But in an election year dominated thus far by the dark shadow of the war in Iraq, gay marriage meets the basic qualification for political prognostication: It's something new to talk about.

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