Almost two weeks after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, polls provide some measure of the impact – zero.
Gallup’s tracking poll average for May 1-7 – the period that ended with Vice President Joe Biden’s statement that he supported same-sex marriage – showed Mitt Romney ahead of Obama by 3 points – 47 percent-44 percent. And the tracking poll average over the past seven days? Romney ahead of Obama by 3 points – 47 percent-44 percent. In between, neither candidate’s standing in the poll changed in any significant way. (Some Democrats believe Gallup’s poll underestimates the size of the minority vote, but whatever may be the poll’s flaws, they wouldn’t change the before and after comparison.)
Some caveats are in order. It’s possible that a national poll might miss subtle shifts in individual states. For example, if Obama lost ground in conservative southern states and gained ground in more liberal coastal states and if the changes in those two sets of states precisely canceled each other out, the national numbers would remain unchanged. A very small shift in one or two swing states could make an important difference in the election outcome but still not register on a national tracking poll. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many recent public polls of swing states, so a “before” and “after” comparison isn’t possible so far.
A tracking poll also doesn’t measure voter enthusiasm. So perhaps some younger voters who favor same-sex marriage rights might have become more motivated to go out and work for Obama, for example, or maybe some conservative voters who already had planned to vote for Romney might have become even more firm in their convictions.
Still, the flat line on the poll average should be a good reminder that events which loom large in the day’s headlines often don’t have much impact on election results. The reason for that isn’t complex: In elections with an incumbent president, most voters lock into position pretty early while those who remain persuadable one way or the other generally focus on issues that directly affect their lives. In this election, that mostly means the state of the economy.
How about the other way around: Did Obama’s announcement shift voters’ views of same-sex marriage? There, too, the impact seems very small at best. UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck and Ryan D. Enos, an assistant professor of government at Harvard, looked at data from the weekly YouGov poll and wrote in a blog post that “very little of interest has happened to public opinion as a consequence of Obama’s revelation.The week before his announcement, 49 percent of Americans in the YouGov poll supported gay marriage. The week after – 48 percent, a change far too small to take seriously. Essentially – opinion in general did not move at all after Obama’s interview.”
The YouGov data, they noted, did provide some indication that among the small group of people who had shifted their view in the week after Obama’s announcement, blacks were more likely to move toward a pro-gay-marriage stand. If that trend solidifies and continues, it could be important for referendums on marriage in states which have large black populations, including Maryland, which is expected to vote on the issue in November.