Shortly after voters in North Carolina dealt a crushing blow to the cause of same-sex marriage in that state, advocates in Maryland found a high-profile ally in no less a political heavyweight than President Barack Obama.
After years of saying that his position on the issue was “evolving,” Obama announced Wednesday that he supported extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. Observers say the move could lead Maryland to become the first state to successfully defend same-sex marriage at the ballot box if, as expected, it goes before voters in November.
In February, the General Assembly narrowly approved legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry, but opponents pledged to fight the law and have begun gathering the signatures needed to put the measure before voters in November’s general election.
“The wild card in everything is the African-American vote,” said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City. “That’s where opposition is strongest in the General Assembly and in key polls.”
Black religious leaders now could be reluctant to disagree with the president, but it wasn’t clear whether that would cause overall opposition to soften, Eberly said.
But with the first African-American president running for re-election in November, many black voters could change their minds on the marriage issue, Eberly said.
A Gallup poll released this week suggests Obama’s position reflects how public opinion has shifted on the issue throughout the years. The poll found that 50 percent of Americans now favor legalizing same-sex marriage, with 48 percent opposed; in 1996, 27 percent were in favor and 68 percent were opposed, according to the poll.
As of last week, a petition drive by same-sex marriage opponents had collected more than 30,000 of the nearly 56,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot, according to the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which is leading the effort.
One-third of the required signatures must be submitted by May 31, and the rest by June 30, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Ballot initiatives have been a death sentence for campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, North Carolina became the latest state to pass a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage only can be between a man and a woman.
But now Maryland could be the first state to buck the trend. “In Maryland, [Obama’s] support could really help,” Eberly said, adding that it might have helped the cause more if the president had spoken out prior to the vote in North Carolina sooner. “One might say, ‘Thank you’ for coming in a day late and a dollar short,” he said.
Although polarizing issues such as same-sex marriage or the Maryland Dream Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition and also is facing a referendum in November, are likely to increase voter turnout, it’s hard to predict whether that would result in an advantage for one side or the other, said Roy Meyers, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“I think the general feeling of most political scientists is that the president’s statement is not going to have much of an impact,” Meyers said.
Either way, same-sex marriage advocates see Obama’s endorsement as a huge win.
“[Obama’s] announcement is especially important to our coalition and to the thousands of couples and families in Maryland who are working to ensure the Civil Marriage Protection Act is upheld this November,” Josh Levin, campaign director for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said in a statement. “The president’s words will no doubt inspire thousands more conversations around kitchen tables and in communities across our state.”
But those words also could serve as a fundraising tool of the opposition, which could now use Obama as an “identifiable target” to draw more dollars, Meyers said.
Opponents themselves doubt that Obama’s announcement will have much impact on the referendum effort in Maryland.
“People will go to the ballot box and vote for marriage between one man and one woman,” said Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. The organization received several calls from former Obama supporters saying that they wouldn’t be voting for his re-election after Wednesday’s announcement, he said.
Obama previously has said that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and the change in his position was likely a concession to left-leaning campaign donors, McCoy said.
Maryland politicians were quick to embrace Obama’s announcement.
“President Obama affirmed that for a people of many different faiths — a people who are committed to the principle of religious freedom -— the way forward is always to be found through greater respect for the equal rights and human dignity of all,” Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said in a statement Wednesday. “In Maryland, we agree.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement that he applauded the president “for taking this step forward.”