Obama, Black Voters, and Same-Sex Marriage

On Twitter, I’ve been in something of a friendly back-and-forth with The New York Times’ David Leonhardt about the African American vote and President Obama’s support—or lack thereof—for same-sex marriage. In its most recent survey, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that 49 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage, while 40 percent opposed. What’s more, for 54 percent of Americans, the question of support or opposition wouldn’t make a difference in how they voted.

Leonhardt considered this in the context of African Americans. Given the degree to which black voters are less likely to support same-sex marriage—only 36 percent do, according to a recent Pew poll—is it possible that Obama would lose African American votes if he moved with the curve and endorsed same-sex marriage before the election? Leonhardt says yes. “[It’s] Hard to believe the effect of any such high-profile, contested issue will be zero. And some states are likely to be v[ery] close.”

As you probably guessed, I’m not so sure. The key question isn’t whether African Americans are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage—they are—it’s whether it matters to their vote. So far, the evidence suggests that it doesn’t. In 2004—when anti-gay marriage amendments were on 11 state ballots—African Americans were slightly less likely to support the measures than their white counterparts. The data bears this out; after collecting survey data from 1973 to 2000, Professor Gregory Lewis from Georgia State University found that blacks are “more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay-rights laws.”

This makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. Black voters routinely elect representatives who support gay rights, and vote for the party which supports gay rights in national elections. To wit, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who successfully pushed for the legalization of gay marriage in his state, maintains a 68 percent approval rating with African Americans in the state, according to the Sienna Research Institute. Moreover, 53 percent of blacks say that New York is on the right track, more than any other demographic group.

In terms of their church attendance, African Americans look a lot like white Evangelicals, but it’s a mistake to assume that they share a similar set of concerns. When it comes to politics at least, black opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t as intense as it is among other groups of religious voters, and as such, doesn’t seem to have an effect on their support for Democratic politicians. If Obama were to come out in support of same-sex marriage, some African Americans would be dissatisfied, but the combination of partisanship, in-group loyalty, and broader concern for economic issues would outweigh the disappointment.

Put another way, black folks aren’t going to abandon the first black president over gay marriage.