Obama, Romney: How Now?

Two big stories played out this week in the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Their lasting impact on the election contest remains to be seen.

Obama, who had said before that he was “evolving” on this matter, announced in a nationally televised interview that he personally supports same-sex marriage. A writer for the Columbia Journalism Review was quick to note that any of Obama’s changes of heart are accepted in the media as a matter of evolution, while Romney’s shifting positions on matters such as government-mandated health insurance are pegged as flip-flops.

Romney, who said he couldn’t recall an incident from his prep-school days in Michigan, nevertheless apologized both on Fox News Radio and on the Fox News Channel after the Washington Post reported that he’d led a group of boys ganging up on a classmate at the Cranbrook School presumed to be gay, pushing him to the floor and cutting his long bleached blond hair. Philip Maxwell, a classmate then and lawyer now in Michigan, has recalled the episode as “vicious” and “a haunting memory” still.

Romney says he not only doesn’t “recall the incident” — he  also “had no idea what that individual’s sexual orientation might be.” He allowed that he had done “some dumb things” in high school “and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize.”

So now, the impact.

Obama’s words on gay marriage, issued the day after voters in North Carolina overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as nearly three dozen other states have done, was widely viewed as risky.

Yet was it?

Public opinion on gay marriage has taken a remarkable turn toward support in the past decade. As recently as 2004, the Washington-based Pew Research Center has found, 60 percent of Americans surveyed opposed same-sex marriage. Now, Pew finds in its surveys, 43 percent say they oppose it. Support has grown from 31 percent in 2004 to 47 percent today — with a plurality now voicing support for same-sex marriage, by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent.

Andrew Kohut, president of the center, notes that opinion on issues such as abortion has remained virtually constant while opinion on gay marriage has so notably changed. He attributes this to a generational shift — with younger people largely in support, and becoming a growing share of the voting population.

The shift on gay marriage has been recorded across virtually every bloc of voters, Kohut noted today on National Public Radio — with the exception of Republicans; 21 percent supported it a decade ago; 23 percent support it today.

So the one group least likely to support Obama’s re-election is the one group in which opinion about gay marriage has remained most negative and unchanged.

The president’s reelection campaign clearly sees something to be gained by Obama’s new position among his own base of voters, particularly those younger people who voted so strongly for him in 2008 and generally agree with him on gay rights. The campaign wasted no time in producing a Web-video portraying Obama’s stance as “forward”–looking and Romney as “backwards on equality” the morning after his announcement. Last night, the video was circulated to supporters under Obama’s own name on Twitter.

And a super-PAC aligned with Obama, American Bridge, today issued a two-minute Web-video at its new site, Mitt Gets Worse: “The more we learn about Mitt Romney’s attitude toward LGBT people, the worse it gets.”

Romney has maintained that marriage is between a man and a woman, and he has not evolved on that question.

The president’s evolution on the issue also has a potential payoff for his campaign fundraising, with a LGBT-sponsored event in New York City featuring singer Ricky Martin on Obama’s schedule Monday.

As for Romney’s acknowledged “dumb things” in high school, that saga is likely to play poorly among voters predisposed to oppose the former governor of Massachusetts as a candidate for president — perhaps because of his inability to recall that incident as much as the story itself.

Romney supporters are likely to forgive any teenage “hijinks,” as he  described the events of those years, as something that happened long ago and generally at odds with the narrative of Romney’s life story as a family man and extraordinarily successful businessman.

“I don’t know any of us who doesn’t look back and regret some silly things they did in their youth,” says Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “The president’s evolution, as they call it, on that issue” of gay marriage, he says, “that is a matter that is going to get a lot of conversation. What Mitt does at 15 in school —  and I don’t know the particulars — it’s probably not going to last as a story.”

Pointing to the president’s words on gay marriage as “a policy matter that affects 300 million people, compared with an experience Mitt had as a youth,” he said in an interview, ”I don’t think they’re comparable…”

“Mitt has led an idyllic life,” Cardenas said. “In Mitt’s case, if the worst they can come up with in a man’s upbringing is maybe a little something in high school, an isolated incident, I don’t think it’s a character issue.”

All of this adds up to another week’s chapter for an electorate divided, with supporters and opponents of both candidates likely to find reinforcement for their own beliefs.

The unknown element could be the impact of all of this on the independent-minded voter, the one who aligns with neither party. Many may be starting to tune into the campaign for the first time — and the tale of bullying, an apology and inability to recall the reason for that contrition makes for a curious introduction to a candidate.

That Pew poll found that 53 percent of independent voters opposed same-sex marriage in 2004, a year in which President George W. Bush’s re-election appeal to voters on social, family-related matters served him well. The latest survey, conducted in April, found just 38 percent of independents opposed to gay marriage, and only 19 percent of them strongly opposed — which helps explain why we likely will hear more about the issue from Obama’s campaign, and little from Romney’s.

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