Conservatives warned, often with glee, that President Barack Obama's support for same-sex marriage would spark an African-American backlash. But guess what? Polls show black voters dramatically swinging closer to Obama's view.
Black voters, for reasons heavily related to religious views, have in the past been more conservative about same-sex marriage than national averages. New polls indicate that Obama's gay-marriage support may do more to help the cause than hurt his popularity.
A new ABC/Washington Post poll released Thursday found a new high of 59 percent of African-Americans say gay marriage should be legal. That's up from an average of 41 percent in polls leading up to Obama's recent announcement that his position had "evolved" into support for the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry.
That surge among black voters helped push support among Americans overall to 53 percent, a dramatic increase from six years ago when only 36 percent supported same-sex marriage.
Only 39 percent of Americans overall maintain that gay marriage should be illegal.
The poll-takers cautioned that the results, though statistically significant, were based on a relatively small sample of black voters, a fact upon which conservative critics pounced. Yet statewide polls taken by Public Policy Polling have found a similar pro-gay-marriage swing in Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania before and after Obama's pronouncement. Almost all of the movement was driven by black voters.
The state to watch is Maryland, where voters will be asked in November to approve or repeal a new state law that legalizes same-sex marriage. A poll released Thursday by PPP finds 55 percent of black Maryland voters now say they will support the new law and only 36 percent oppose it. That's a complete flip since March, when 56 percent told PPP that they would vote against the measure.
Overall, 57 percent of likely Maryland voters say they will vote for the referendum, in support of gay marriage, and only 37 percent intend to vote against it, the poll shows. That's a big gain since a poll in early March found the measure winning by a much closer 52 percent to 44 percent margin. Again, almost all of the shift came from African-Americans, who the Census Bureau says comprise 30 percent of the state's population.
"The media's been asking the wrong question," said Dean Debnam, Democratic pollster and president of Public Policy Polling. "The big issue isn't how Obama's stance will affect his re-election hopes. It's how Obama's stance will move public opinion on gay marriage."
More questions: Why has black voter opinion moved so quickly? Will it continue to do so? As someone who knows happily and legally married gay and lesbian couples — and who has lived with churchgoing African-Americans all of my life — I can think of several reasons for this evolution.
Much of it has been building for years. Today we see an array of black leadership as diverse as Colin Powell and Jay-Z lending their support to Obama's position.
There are those who think, as I do, that conservatives overreach when they call gay marriage a "war against marriage." One outstanding example: My wife and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I am happy to report, without any noticeable scratches inflicted on our marriage by the rights of gays and lesbians to enter the same marital rites.
Still, black Americans are as divided over the issue as other Americans. There will be some voters, no doubt, who choose as someone told my friend Barbara Reynolds, a columnist for The Root website and an ordained minister, to "stay home and … vote for Jesus."
But many more, I believe, will decline to scrap their other political concerns for the sake of this single issue. After all, not voting is the same as casting a vote for whomever — or whatever — you would have opposed..
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.