WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2004 -- -- When Massachusetts' highest court legalized same-sex marriages and the mayor of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, it ignited a firestorm across the country.
At the time, some Democrats feared such moves might create a backlash against the Democratic Party in the 2004 election. Today, many Democrats say those fears were realized.
"I believe it did energize a very conservative vote," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former San Francisco mayor. "I think it gave them a position to rally around."
"The people behind the lawsuits to strike down marriage in courts have seriously misjudged the views of the American people," said Matt Daniels, president of a public policy group called the Alliance for Marriage.
A Big Impact in a Key State
Conservatives in 11 states pushed forward with ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. All 11 passed, including in the battleground state of Ohio.
Political analysts say it drew Republicans to the polls, most significantly in Ohio. According to an analysis by the ABC News Polling Unit, Ohio saw a five-point increase in turnout among conservatives between 2000 and 2004.
"They sure were highly motivated to turn out the vote against gay marriage," said Ohio Democratic strategist Greg Haas. "That obviously impacted the outcome of the race by at least a couple hundred thousand votes."
Bush won Ohio by only 136,000 votes.
Republicans clearly tried to use the issue to win votes, whether in a Republican National Committee mailing with a picture of a man proposing to another man or in millions of phone calls.
Said one Bush campaign staffer to a potential voter via telephone: "Just want to let you know that President Bush is committed to protecting the unborn, defending marriage and preserving 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance."
"In a lot of these small towns and small cities areas like where I'm from, the turnout was off the charts," Haas said. "It really was you know a very diabolically brilliant move on the part of [Bush adviser] Karl Rove and others to lay this issue out there."
Conservatives argue that the ones who lay the issue before the American people are the judicial activists in Massachusetts and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, although California law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Gay Activists in Shock
Regardless of who's to blame, gay activists are still in shock.
"Gays and lesbians are deeply hurt, heartbroken," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian lobbying group. "Many Americans in this country voted to discriminate against us, voted to put back in place a president who made it a hallmark of his first administration to come over and attack gay and lesbian families, to attempt to write discrimination into the United States Constitution. That hurts and that hurts a lot. I believe the day will come when voters will regret those ballot initiatives.
"America is not ready for the ballot questions that were driven by the extreme right," Jacques added. "The students were given the final exam on the first day of class."
Jacques argues that in the same way the United States had to be "educated" about the need for civil rights for blacks and women, the nation has a lot to learn about gays and lesbians.
"Americans are just figuring out who their gay and lesbian neighbors, and brothers and sisters and cousins, are," she said.
And while the "education" process has worked enough for there to be some progress, she added, much more work remains to be done.
But Daniels sharply disagrees, noting that opposition to gay marriage is not a view held just by conservatives.
"They vote that way across party lines. They vote that way at a very deep level that is about more than parties, about more than campaigns and elections," he said. "It's a very wide and deep consensus that we have in America that kids do best with a mom and a dad and our laws should encourage that."
For his part, Newsom rejects any blame for Kerry's loss.
Maybe it was the presence of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Ohio the Friday before the election, Newsom speculated defensively. "Maybe it was [Osama] bin Laden and the tapes," he said. "Maybe it was the lack of clarity or an alternative positive agenda."
Since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003 for same-sex marriages, while Newsom's actions weren't until three months later, Newsom even speculated that "maybe it was the Massachusetts Supreme Court."
Democrats have not yet figured out a response on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage.
Some argue it is a fundamental civil rights issue America will ultimately embrace. Others say the party is out of touch with the American people and as long as it stays that way, its members should expect to be in the minority for a long time.