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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

February 25, 2012 at 6:30 AM

Gregoire calls Obama "inspiration" for same-sex marriage law, but will it be enough to motivate young voters?

Then-Sen. Barack Obama and Governor Christine Gregoire at a 2008 campaign rally at Key Arena (photo by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times).

Governor Christine Gregoire hailed President Obama on Friday as the “inspiration” for Washington state’s passage of a same-sex marriage law. It was a declaration that may surprise some.

If her view is shared by the president’s fabled young supporters, same-sex marriage is more likely to survive the potential ballot referendum in the fall elections.

Gregoire, according to Politico, praised Obama after he met with Democratic Party governors at the White House. The president, notably, does not support same-sex marriage laws, though he has often said his views are “evolving” on the matter.

But Gregoire said Obama had done plenty.

“I think we probably have succeeded as much as we have because of his leadership,” she told Politico. “He’s used the bully pulpit. He’s been the inspiration that allowed the state of Washington [to] recognize that we need to have equality.

“It’s because of what he’s been able to do that I actually think in large part we were able to achieve what we did. So I don’t criticize. To the contrary, I thank the president for his leadership on GLBT issues.”

Change is certainly underway.

In 2004, 11 states passed initiatives banning same-sex marriage. Flash forward to 2012: in the past two weeks alone, three states have passed laws that legalize same-sex marriage — Washington, New Jersey, and Maryland.

In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie vetoed the law, but when Maryland governor Martin O’Malley signs the bill next week that has passed both legislative chambers in his state, eight states plus the District of Columbia will have laws supporting gay marriage. Eight years ago, there were none.

Two forces are driving these changes.

First, there has been significant shifts in national public opinion on homosexuality.  The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan survey firm, has been asking U.S. adults for years whether homosexuality should be “accepted” or “discouraged” by society.

In 1994 when Pew first asked this question, 49% said homosexuality should be discouraged, compared to 46% who said accepted. The numbers held fairly steady for five years or so, then began to become more favorable toward gays and lesbians. In March 2011, Pew found 58% saying homosexuality should be encouraged, compared to 33% saying discouraged.

This move towards greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality has funneled into greater support for same-sex marriage.

Second, there are massive shifts occurring across generations. Simply put, each new cohort of Americans is showing greater support for same-sex marriage.

Two Columbia University political scientists, Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips, mapped this generational change on a state-by-state basis in a 2009 scholarly article. They showed the almost-clockwork shifts in greater support for same-sex marriage that has occurred across the United States.

This kind of over-time change is known as “generational change.”  The pace of it for same-sex marriage, across state after state, is rapid.

We can see it in Washington.

Public Policy Polling conducted a survey of Washington registered voters over the weekend, asking questions on presidential and gubernatorial candidates, as well as the likely ballot initiatives.

They found that 61% of 18-to-29 year olds support legal same-sex marriage, 49% of people 30-45 in age do, and 51% of people 46 to 65 do. But only 39% of people older than 65 do.

That’s generational change. And come autumn’s potential ballot referendum on same-sex marriage, whichever age groups turn out to vote in higher numbers will make the difference. That’s where President Obama’s young supporters come in. Or not.

Comments | Topics: Barack Obama, Christine Gregoire, Demographics

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