Explaining Black Voters’ Shift on Same-Sex Marriage

Obama supporters march in the 2008 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California.Krista Kennell/Zuma

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Black voters in Maryland have flipped on same-sex marriage, going from majority opposed to majority in favor in the space of two months. As I noted on Thursday, that means that Maryland could become the first state to approve of marriage equality by referendum.

So what does this say about the power of the bully pulpit? Empirical data suggests that presidential speeches rarely move public opinion in an affirmative direction, and may even harden it against whatever the president is proposing. The key shift on same-sex marriage, though, comes from a population that was already supportive of Obama. Political scientist John Sides points to an experiment that may shed some light:

Although the polling data thus far generally support the finding that presidents don’t move public opinion very much or very often, there is some reason to believe that Obama himself could move opinion among African-Americans. In a 1994 paper (gated), James Kuklinski and Norman Hurley conducted an experiment in which respondents read a statement urging African-Americans to demonstrate more self-reliance. The statement was attributed to Jesse Jackson, Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, or no one.

Among black participants, the most persuasive cue-giver was Jackson, following closely by…? Thomas…This is nothing unique to Jackson or Thomas or even African-Americans, of course. Sources of information are generally more credible when they are perceived as sharing our identities, values, etc.

I’m inclined to think that this doesn’t mean that Obama’s been holding out on magic pixie dust for influencing public opinion, but that this is a fairly unique circumstance in that black Americans, prior to Obama’s endorsement, were more likely to oppose marriage equality and really like Obama. The president has given many more public speeches in support of the Affordable Care Act than same-sex marriage, without moving the dial a notch. Also “really like Obama” is understating it a bit: the president is a singularly unique figure in the black community as a symbol of accomplishment and hope for a better future. 

Another factor here is that I think opposition to same-sex marriage among black Americans is wide, but for the most part not particularly deep. This is why black legislators who support same-sex marriage don’t get punished at the polls. There’s also a partisanship factor at work here: As Jonathan Bernstein writes, “African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue — but do consider themselves on Team Democrat — are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team.” I’d say that we saw similar psychological effect with Republicans and climate change.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate