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GAY MARRIAGE: Did issue help re-elect Bush?

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Nov. 4, 2004

2004-11-04 Washington -- San Francisco did not vote for President Bush, but the pictures of wedded gay and lesbian couples streaming from its City Hall last February may have helped return him to the White House.

Those pictures and a Massachusetts court decision to allow same-sex marriage proved to be, if not political poison for Democratic challenger John Kerry, not exactly a tonic, either.

The lesbian and gay community awoke Wednesday morning to a bitter landscape: Bush, who supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, re- elected (with a fifth of the gay vote); four new Republican senators, including staunch social conservative Tom Coburn in Oklahoma; the prospect of conservatives filling potential Supreme Court vacancies; and to top it off, 11 state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.

The state marriage bans passed overwhelmingly everywhere they were on the ballot, including, critically, Ohio, which narrowly handed Bush his victory.

Gay and lesbian leaders faced a sober rethinking of their strategy -- which some said must include reaching out to churches and red-state voters who gave Republicans their sweep of the House, Senate and White House.

Some, however, fiercely denied that their drive for marriage equality contributed to Kerry's narrow loss. The Massachusetts senator opposed a federal constitutional ban.

"There's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that gay marriage tipped the scale in any state," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Others -- from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to leaders of the Christian right to outside analysts -- disagreed.

Meeting with reporters outside her San Francisco home Wednesday afternoon, Feinstein was asked whether Mayor Gavin Newsom's issuance of marriage licenses -- which Bush cited as a factor in his decision to support a federal constitutional ban -- had caused a problem for Democrats.

"I believe it did energize a very conservative vote," Feinstein said. "It gave them a position to rally around. The whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon."

On 11/2/04 in San Francisco Emeryville couple (L to R) Jeanne Fong and Jennifer Lin, dressed in wedding gowns to emphasize their opinion for support of same sex marriage rights as they join a crowd of largely Kerry supporters watching the election results on a large screen outside on 18th and Castro as hopes for a Kerry victory fade. Chronicle Photo by Kat Wade Mags out/mandatory credits San Francisco Chronicle and photographer/ Kat Wade

Several gay leaders insisted, however, that the marriage measures were mostly in states Bush was expected to carry anyway. Even Ohio's measure, they insist, did not hurt Kerry.

They also defended their legal drive for marriage rights, which won a historic victory with the Goodridge decision in Massachusetts last November that ushered in the nation's first same-sex marriages last spring and triggered a national storm over gay and lesbian unions in the middle of a presidential campaign.

"It's hard for me to say Goodridge tipped everything when these folks were making anti-gay law a centerpiece of their strategy since 1996," said Mary Bonauto, the lawyer for the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders who won the case.

Bonauto said that by the time Goodridge was decided, 37 states already had "defense of marriage" statutes on the books, and a constitutional ban had already been introduced in Congress.

"I believe these people would have been out there for Bush in any event," Bonauto said. "He had four years to show he speaks a particular faith code that other people understand. They were going to turn out for him, and they did -- marriage notwithstanding."

But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the issue won Bush the election.

"It was these value voters who ushered the president down the aisle for a second term," Perkins said, citing polls showing moral values trumped war, terrorism and the economy as the key issue for many voters.

Same-sex marriage "was the great iceberg," said Robert Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women of America. "A lot of analysts saw the tip but didn't understand the power of the mass underneath. It galvanized millions of Christians to turn out and vote, and George Bush and the GOP got the lion's share of that vote."

Knight cited "massive efforts" by religious groups in Ohio "to rally pastors and to get Christians out of the pews and into the voting booths."

Some gay leaders agreed. "I think it's pretty clear that (Bush political czar) Karl Rove's strategy of using gay and lesbian families as wedge issues in this election worked," said Christopher Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who refused to endorse Bush. "It's hard to argue with results."

Foreman, however, pointed to Kerry's vote gains in Ohio, Michigan and Oregon, all of which had the same-sex ballot measures, over Democrat Al Gore's tallies in the 2000 race as proof the measures did not contribute to Kerry's defeat.

"It was not what won Florida for Bush," Foreman said. "It was not on the table in New Mexico, it was not on the table in Nevada."

Knight insisted that the marriage issue tapped "a larger perception that the GOP represents the moral order." Although the candidates debated other moral issues as well, from stem cell research to late-term abortion, "normally one issue comes to symbolize that great cultural divide, and marriage is that issue," he said. "The Democrats, to recover, are going to have to leave Castro Street and return to Main Street or they will be hopelessly out of touch for the foreseeable future."

Nathan Persily, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and politics, agreed that same-sex marriage became a proxy for the larger moral issues that so moved voters.

"John Kerry realized very late in the game that his persona as a secular Northeasterner was something that many Americans found foreign to them," he said, noting Kerry's declarations of his Catholic faith and speeches from Florida pulpits two Sundays before the election.

At a press conference, Newsom expressed little patience for the suggestion that GOP victories and state amendments were related to his decision to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

"If you listened to the president," he said, "it was the activist judges who had the audacity to interpret the Constitution appropriately and say it's wrong to deny equal protection to all people.

"Why aren't the blogs talking about Schwarzenegger and his popularity at the convention? Why aren't they talking about (the governor) going out to Ohio a couple days ago? Why aren't they talking about the bin Laden tapes?

"I'd like to think I'm that influential. I hardly think I was," Newsom said.

Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, borrowed, perhaps not coincidentally, the moral values rhetoric of an earlier civil rights movement to defend the drive for marriage equality while conceding its difficulty.

"As Martin Luther King wrote in his 'Letters from a Birmingham Jail,' " Jacques said, "there is no convenient time to ask those who oppose equality to think more kindly about it."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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