The 2008 election was a great day for those of the liberal persuasion.Barack Obama won the White House. Democrats picked up eight seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House on their way to large majorities in each. The passage of Proposition 8 in California (rolling back same-sex marriage rights), however, was the major blemish on progressives' joy.
This year, President Obama is in good standing in the polls and Democrats are holding surprisingly strong in their bid to keep control of the Senate. But will 2012 also be marked by the defeat of same-sex marriage referendums at the polls?
This November, there are four states with same-sex marriage ballot measures: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. These have the potential to be the biggest ballot victories to date for proponents of same-sex marriage.
Question 1, as it is known, comes three years after Maine voters "vetoed" a same-sex marriage law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. The veto was surprising because Maine tends to be a liberal state with no deep ties of religion. Demographic models based on the religiosity of each state suggested that the same-sex marriage amendment should have passed in 2009 by 6 to 10 points. Polling disagreed, and it was the polling that was correct.
This year, demographic models and polling agree that same-sex marriage should pass in Maine. Same-sex marriage acceptance is increasing almost everywhere. A presidential election year turnout also tends to be younger and more favorable to a vote supporting same-sex marriage. Depending on whether you believe the pace at which the acceptance of same-sex marriage is increasing more rapidly than before (as some national polls indicate) or at a linear pace, demographics suggest Maine passing same-sex marriage by 12 to 20 points. The last three polls also have same-sex marriage passing by 15 to 22 points.
Maryland voters are being asked via referendum to uphold a same-sex marriage law passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. The bill promises that religious leaders will not have to perform the ceremonies if they are opposed to them. Maryland is an interesting state, demographically, in that its black voters are more Democratic, but also more socially conservative than white Marylandvoters. The fact that white voters only made up 64% of the 2008 electorate would suggest a very tight finish for Maryland's Question 6.
Yet, polls have Maryland voters approving same-sex marriage by 14 to 20 points. Earlier polls had support for the legislature's actions only leading by single-digits. What happened to provide this sudden jolt in support? Minority, specifically black, voters have grown in their support of same-sex marriage since President Obama announced his backing for gay marriage in May: it seems to be a rare example where the president's bully pulpit has actually worked.
The one state where same-sex marriage opponents may be heading to victory is Minnesota. The constitutional amendment does not actually mention gay marriage. Instead, it asks yes or no for a "Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman". Minnesota's amendment is also different in that not only does "yes" have to beat "no" for the measure to be adopted, but it must also clear 50% of all ballots cast. In other words, a voter who casts neither a yes nor a no vote, but votes in other contests, is in essence casting a no vote.
Minnesota is a moderately religious state, but its religious population is largely conservative (see Michele Bachmann). If acceptance for same-sex marriage is increasing at an accelerated rate as compared to previous years, then demographics would suggest the ban's likelihood of surviving is now a toss-up. A linear trend, though, argues that the ban should pass by about 10 points. Polling indicates that the correct answer is probably between a toss-up and a 10-point "win" for the ban. An average of recent polls puts the "yes" side up by 4 points. That's a close race, and given the effect of abstentions, I believe either side could win.
Washington's referendum is nearly identical to Maryland's. It's asking voters to uphold an act of the legislature signed by the governor. Like Maryland, the ban has clerical exceptions. A domestic partnership law was upheld by Washingtonians in 2009 by a 7-point margin.
Washington state is one of the least religious states in the nation, so you'd expect the law almost certainly to be upheld. Demographic models have same-sex marriage support outscoring opposition by 10 to 20 percentage points. The latest polling matches the modeling and has the same-sex marriage law winning by 10 to 18 points.
Overall, the picture is rosy for same-sex marriage proponents. It looks likely that same-sex marriage is going to be approved at the ballot box for the first time, on a state-by-state basis.
The only cautionary note I would add is that same-sex marriage opposition has performed 7 percentage points better at the ballot box in past years than polls have estimated. But this opposition "bonus" hasbeen waning in recent years. In any case, same-sex marriage approval is ahead by enough points in Maine, Maryland and Washington that the bans would pass even if there is hidden opposition.