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Why did marriage equality come so quickly?

by Eric Ferguson on May 23, 2013 · 11 comments

marriage equality wins at the state capitolYou already know this if you’ve been hanging out in the liberal blogosphere or lefty social circles, but for everyone else, a recent topic of discussion is how the issue of marriage equality reversed so fast, and so certainly. Or was it so fast and certain? The context is wondering how it happened so we can copy it with other issues. Gun sanity seemed to have sudden momentum after the Newtown massacre, but then faded. Not entirely of course, but enough that opponents have been able to protect the cruel jokes we call gun laws.  Climate change is an urgent issue yet, despite being high on the national agenda for a generation, progress is incremental. It’s there, but not close to what we need. Yet marriage equality moved, in what feels like a blink, from a wedge issue for Republicans to a wedge issue for Democrats; from a long string of lopsided defeats at the ballot box to four wins last election day, and several states legalizing it this year, with the opinion polls steadily in our favor. Why? And could correctly understanding why help us on other issues?


I have three theories, which I call “good news”, “bad news”, and “no news”. That last one isn’t a great descriptor, but seems to fit the naming pattern. The first two though … great naming on my part IMHO, even if readers decide the naming was the only part I got right. Let’s start with the good news.

The “good news” is what I’ve heard referred to as “generation next”. Or maybe that was a energy drink ad. Anyway, it means the change in public attitudes and electoral fortunes has been driven by young voters. Young voters, even in elections when they do better at turning out, have low enough turnout that candidates can safely ignore them, provided they don’t lose young voters by blowout percentages. Which the Republicans did, and more immediate to our subject, so did marriage opponents. Even at that, losing last year’s new voters shouldn’t matter much, except two other things are going on. One, young voters have supported marriage equality since roughly sometime in the 1990′s, and there’s no indication that’s going to change in foreseeable elections. Second, they maintained that support as they reached the age where they vote more regularly. So supporters have won young voters for a bunch of elections, and kept their support as they got older.


That would explain results in referenda. To explain legislative success, possibly something legislators are thinking about, at least if they’re thinking past the next election, is that marriage supporters are going to be voting for a long time, while opponents on average have a fewer elections ahead of them. Just in case I could appeal to self-interest, an argument I made to legislators is that they risked alienating people who just started voting and haven’t established that habits yet. Likewise, at least in Minnesota, the campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment last year brought in a lot of volunteers who volunteered for a campaign for the first time in a long time or first time at all, and those are the legislators’ future volunteer base they’re alienating by finding excuses for not acting now. So some who voted to legalize gay marriage took a risk in terms of the next election, but they seriously mitigated future risks. Maybe those who voted to legalize saw the folly of defying generation next. Obviously, they also could have just been voting their party or their conscience or their district, with no concern about generational differences.


However, not just the gay rights movement has been doing this. The TPM article I linked above is about how marijuana legalization has followed the same trajectory. TPM included this rather telling chart (click to enlarge):


changing attitudes: marriage equality and pot legalization


Opinion on marijuana legalization has changed the same way, with the same young voters, just a bit behind marriage equality, and it’s getting similar electoral and legislative results.


The other issue with rapid recent progress is immigration reform. I haven’t seen such a neatly laid out chart like for the other two issues, but I found polls showing greater support for immigration and citizenship among younger voters in 2002, 2010, and this morning. Though to add fuzziness, the 2002 survey didn’t ask specifically about citizenship or legalization for anyone undocumented, the 2010 poll is just Arizona, and this morning’s poll by Washington Post/ABC defined young as 18-39. That’s problematic because the first election where young voters went heavily Democratic was 2004, and those first-time voters are just now reaching 30, so not quite testing the theory. Still, there is a strong indication that for a decade, young voters have been friendlier to immigration, which is what we’re looking for. However, to add more nuance, the increase in the Hispanic population is thought to have driven the issue, and there’s a lot of overlap in newer voters between young voters and Hispanic voters.


If this is accurate, then an issue where we’re spinning our wheels should be one where there isn’t an age difference in opinion. That Washington Post/ABC polls didn’t find much age difference on gun regulations, and seniors are actually most supportive. This National Journal poll found the same thing. Of course, this issue has followed a radically different trajectory than the other three, where support has increased gradually with each new group of young voters adding to the support.


The ramification is that if this is accurate, then the way to make progress on an issue is to win the young voters, keep their support as they age and get more frequent in their voting, and win the young voters for a bunch of elections in a row. If we can do this, then we want young voters to drive public policy, and marriage equality advocates, gay rights supporters in general,  have been doing this with substantial success.


So what’s the “bad news”? An alternate theory on the sudden success of marriage equality is that advocates matched marriage opponents in big money.  There are rich guys who support marriage equality, and their money gets them instant credibility and attention. If they don’t think they got enough attention,  they can afford lots of paid media. The pro-marriage side didn’t depend on big money as much as the anti-marriage side, but it seems to have gotten as much big money roughly, and a big advantage in small donors provided an overall financial edge. Discrimination advocates claim they’re consistently outspent, and they seem to be at least partly right, though keep in mind that the linked article looked only at Minnesota in detail.


Why did I label this “bad news”? Because the left hates rich guys being able to get instant attention and credibility just from being rich. We hates campaigns being a matter of who has more money, and which side has a wealthy special interest or sugardaddy able to drown out the opposition. If this is why we won, obviously the pro-discrimination side was far from drowned out, but it implies that we can’t win just with better arguments, small donors, and grassroots campaigning.  Considering how many issues have the big money all on the other side (the minimum wage increase jumps immediately to mind — heavy popular support, but hard to get it considered), it’s actually discouraging to think we can’t win without negating the advantage in big money by finding as much big money ourselves. I’d rather think the “good news” really explains it, but beware of believing what’s convenient.


So what do I mean by “no news”? That questions the whole premise that this change happened fast. Yes, there’s a pair of tidy bookends, because legalization by the Democratic majority in the Minnesota legislature came almost to the day of two years after the Republican majority put the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot. Obama endorsed marriage equality last year, four states voted pro-equality last year, and several states legalized legislatively this year. Seems fast, but it also could just be a tipping point rather than a sudden change. Sure, going back two years, it’s fast, and even the Republican use of it as a wedge issue in 2004 is only nine years ago, but the first filing for a same-sex marriage license was 1973. The gay rights movement can be dated to the Stonewall riots in 1969 (obviously a date chosen for prominence, like dating women’s suffrage to the Seneca Falls convention, which required the pre-existence of women’s suffrage supporters to organize it ) which were 44 years ago. 38 states still ban gay marriage, DOMA still stands pending Supreme Court decisions on ban challenges, job discrimination is still mostly legal, so  there’s a long way to go. Which is normal. The aforementioned Seneca Falls convention was in 1848, and it took 72 years to pass the 19th amendment and allow women to vote everywhere, which I expect seemed to happen all at once at the time. If we date the civil rights movement to the founding of the NAACP (again, there obviously were already civil rights advocates to organize it, but for a starting point), then 30 years later, they hadn’t even been able to get an anti-lynching law past the conservative filibuster in the Senate. 50 years later, nothing more than very marginal civil rights bills could get past the filibuster and maybe not even gain a simple majority. 60 years later, the Civil Rights Act had become law, the Voting Rights Act was law (under assault again today, but so far still standing), the Fair Housing Act was law, and membership in the KKK had gone from pretty much a social per-requisite for ambitious white men in many states to something toxic everywhere.


So what seems to be happening isn’t that attitudes changed quickly, but that  they changed slowly, and hit a tipping point where equality won a bunch in a short time after many losses. So does that tell us anything useful, or is it just our neat bit of history for today? My take on it is that the “generation next” strategy really does work, and might be the only way to make big changes, but it takes a long time. Yet, if we have patience, it’s the most certain strategy we have. So essentially:

  • Win young voters by a lot
  • Keep them with you until they reach the age where they vote regularly
  • Repeat for several consecutive elections

and you have a base that’s hard to resist.

Joel Clemmer May 23, 2013 at 7:53 pm

The country is going through a spasm of political libertarianism. This is fostered by plutocrats who do not wish the government to help itself to “their” money. Ironically, some issues appealing to the left overlap with the set of interests of this crowd. Being able to begin your argument with “Why should the government tell me . . . ” qualifies you for support. Gay marriage and smoking pot work well in this context. Regulating our way out of the global warming disaster does not.

biggy johnson May 23, 2013 at 11:07 pm

I think that is part of it but when you look at it this shows us how the Liberals argue. First and foremost gay marriage is an opinion issue. Society defines the meaning of marriage and it is not a right, and equal protection does not apply either. The other agreement I have heard it’s you should not restrict love, or if people love each other you can’t be wrong.
The left argues gay marriage the same way it argues global warming. if you don’t agree with me we will bully you and intimidate you. They however are very clever on how they do this first they assert that it is a right just like free speech and if you can’t see that you are a bigot. For any of us that’s not true at all but we are intimidated into blindly following because we don’t take the time to use our brain and figure out why that argument is flawed.
The first argument is that it’s a right and when you examine it and analyze you find out it’s not. For example if marriage was a fundamental right then it could not be denied, a father could marry his son, sisters could get married, two women one man, five men and two women and so on because it’s an undeniable right. So when we remove the morals of society and assert that it’s a right you can see the consequences. And there you have the flaw it brings us back to the assertion that society defines marriage to be one man and one woman.
Second argument it violates equal protection, nope one man and one woman marriage does not violate equal protection. Because of the simple fact that the law does not care about your sexual preference it treats gays equally. For instance the law states (well it did in the past in Minnesota) that marriage is between a man and a woman. It could be a gay man and a straight woman or a gay man and a gay woman, or it could be a straight man and a gay woman, in this respect the law treats gays equally they can get married and they can be gay but it does not care about your sexual preference gay or straight you are treated the same. This brings us back to my first assertion society defines marriage to be a man and a woman.
Third argument love is the standard we will use to decide who can be married. This one is fun I love my cat and my wife and I love this girl I just met Theresa my wife loves her to so we all want to be married because it’s a big love fest and don’t judge me what gives you the right to decide who or what I love. Ok kind of ludicrous but true if love is the standard then anyone can claim love to whomever or whatever they want. This brings us back to my first assertion society defines marriage to be a man and a woman.
In conclusion I want to say I am not against marriage being re defined by society. I live in Minnesota and we just redefined it to be one man one woman, or two men or women. I do however want to call out the tactics used by liberals to get what they want using any means necessary even being dishonest as wrong and despicable.
Think about where else we are seeing these tactics used, climate change, the IRS to target conservative groups, during the Chrysler/ Chevrolet dealership shutdown where 90+ percent of the closer dealers were republicans, the leaked Romney donors being audited by the IRS, OSHA going after the businesses they own, ATF investigating them, being intimidated by the press by being called homophobes or raciest. Oh and yesterday the emails from the IG show he was done with his report on the IRS in May 2012 what did he do with the report took it to the white house and then sat on it tel after the election. There is wrongdoing here and it needs to stop!

Dan May 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Mr. Johnson, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone on this blog is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Chris Meyer May 24, 2013 at 1:08 am

Totally nitpicking here, but only 36 states ban gay marriage (30 through constitutional amendments, 6 by statute). Two states–New Jersey and New Mexico–don’t yet have officially sanctioned marriage equality, but they don’t have bans, either. A lot of people in NM particular have argued that because NM has no ban on it, gay marriage is de facto legal there.

biggy johnson May 24, 2013 at 8:13 am

True because unlike MN they chose to freeze the definition of marriage in their constitution. Even that can actually be changed they just amend the constitution again. Republicans in Minnesota tried that last election cycle and the citizens of Minnesota said NO! They voted down the amendment and then this legislative secession Minnesota house and senate redefined marriage. The house and senate feel they did the will of the people.

biggy johnson May 24, 2013 at 8:31 am

ohh and think about this too California and Iowa both had asked the citizens of the state in a election cycle to vote on the definition of marriage. California in two separate votes defined marriage as one man one woman Iowa did the same but only once. In both states a judge went against the will of the people and said this is a right. This is at the supreme court right now and it will be an interesting decision when it comes out

Dog Gone May 25, 2013 at 10:45 am

There are no fact-based arguments against same sex marriage.

There are religious arguments against it, but the notion that a conservative subset of Christianity gets to define marriage by screaming ‘abomination’ is just not very persuasive. Because people no longer widely believe this to be an abomination, just like they eat cheeseburgers, shrimp, and bacon, and wear clothes of mixed fibers and colors, don’t support slavery, and believe selling your daughters into sex slavery is child abuse, contrary to the Bible.

That leaves the right with ‘your marriage will ruin my marriage’, which is ridiculous, and which even those arguing in front of the supreme court against same sex marriage admit makes no sense, and the ‘your marriage will violate my right to religious freedom’ which is stupid on the same basis. No religious freedom by one person is allowed to dictate the religious freedom of another person. But hey – the anti- actual-freedom / lip-service to liberty conservatives keep trying for a puritan theocracy, regardless of reality or reason.

Then we get into the most factually flawed arguments that the fringie right is clinging to the most desperately – that same sex marriage is a crime against nature.

That doesn’t fly because of course we now know that there are over 1500 species in which significant numbers of same sex couples both pair-bond, sometimes for life, the closest equivalent we have to monogamous marriage; and that they raise offspring in the wild. The numbers of documented species where this occurs continues to increase steadily. Further there is no REQUIREMENT that marriage include reproduction (heck, you can have a totally sexless marriage if you want, and some people do or come close to it).

The reality is that marriage in terms of civil contracts is about rights of kinship and inheritance and about property. It is NOT what defines parents, or connects parents to their children. We do not have second, third or fourth class categories of parents determined by marital status, adoption, artificial insemination, surrogacy, IVF, etc. We recognize parents as that – parents.

Beyond that we have decades of studies which show that same sex parents are just as good at being parents, and that heterosexuality does not confer any special benefits to parenting.

Illinois is scheduled to take up the passage of same sex marriage in the coming week/final week of May. It has passed their Senate, looks likely to pass the house, particularly as they previously had same sex civil unions for a few years now, and the world did not end, the sky did not fall, etc.

Michigan is likely to follow, as are other states in various stages of this kind of legislation. The decision from the ScOTUS will no doubt be out in the next 30 days or so, but the trend is headed towards the repeal of DOMA, with it just being a question of how, and when not if.

Conservatives are consistently on the wrong side of these issues in history, and that is why we look back and recognize them to be bigots and idiots. Racists, and fools, sexists, etc. Conservatives are our consistent failure of people to be able both to think and to change as a result of thinking.

There just are not a lot of people who feel strongly AGAINST same sex marriage; there are plenty who feel MORE strongly FOR it. They lost, they accept it, and only the crazies are going to get their knickers in a twist, trying to make life difficult for legislators. They seem to do that not because it is reasonable to do, but because they are mad at the world for changing, and they are frustrated by their own inability to change too. The fault lies in them, not the world for changing, especially for the better. They are bitter hypocrites and emotional crazies. So what – the world can move on just fine without their help. Their choice if they want to be left behind wailing and gnashing their teeth. Willful ignorance and nasty bias are choices, just not pleasant ones for those who choose them.

biggy johnson May 26, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Dog Gone, I am not sure you understood what I wrote maybe you should re read it. I never talked about religion not even hinted at it if you think i did can you please point out what I said that is religious in nature and I will re examine it.

As for the fact based argument for or against Gay Marriage my statement agrees with you, well kind of. I don’t think there are fact based arguments for or against gay marriage. I find all of them to be based on people’s beliefs and morals. As I stated earlier that it is an opinion issue and the public decides to define marriage not based on facts based on opinion.

The reason what the left is winning this argument is because they have intimidated people. I believe currently in this country there are more that like the traditional definition. Even in Minnesota where I live if you let the citizens vote I am not sure it would have passed. The state is about 50/50 and that’s what people will say to a pollster most right wing / conservatives lie to the pollsters.
Stop the hate if someone has an opinion contrary to yours listen to them they probably have a point. This is the biggest problem in our country today all my Democrat friends are so amped up on hating republicans I believe if we don’t change direction you will actually start committing hate crimes based on political beliefs. I almost fee liberals have a jihad against all non liberals just like extremist Muslims

Lastly think about this, republicans / conservatives have not been on the wrong side of history democrats have. When it comes to Civil Rights democrats tried to filibuster the bill or rights
And I know what most liberals say well those people are now republicans but that not true either.
- Robert Byrd, current senator from West Virginia
- J. William Fulbright, Arkansas senator and political mentor of Bill Clinton
- Albert Gore Sr., Tennessee senator, father and political mentor of Al Gore. Gore Jr. has been known to lie about his father’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
- Sam Ervin, North Carolina senator of Watergate hearings fame
- Richard Russell, famed Georgia senator and later President Pro Tempore
Don’t Forget the KKK was started by a Sothern Democrat with the purpose of harassing blacks and republicans
The other stuff you mention the defense of marriage act signed into law by Bill Clinton
Conservatives are Classic Liberals the ones that the lift wing liberals stole the name from. Classic Liberals / conservatives are the people who passed the bill of rights, wrote the constitution, freed the slaves; and so on you completely misunderstand history
I am not saying very many of today’s republicans fit the classic liberal role but a lot more do that democrats

Eric Ferguson May 27, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Biggie, you really misunderstand the history. Of course many Democrats opposed civil rights. Ask yourself, what was the most conservative element of American politics then? Southern Democrats. What was the most liberal element? Northern Democrats. What’s the most conservative element of modern politics? Southern Republicans. The most liberal is still Northern Democrats. Southern whites switched parties. The claim that Democrats are the ones who really have the history of racism ignores that the parties changed, but conservatives didn’t. Conservatives started the KKK, opposed the civil rights movement, and all those things you try to lay on the Democrats. Which is the conservative party now? And that’s why Republicans don’t get to claim to be the party of civil rights. Republicans gave up their claim to being the “party of Lincoln” when they went all-in on the “Southern Strategy”. Conservative Democrats didn’t just happen to start supporting Republicans — Republicans based their electoral strategy on taking advantage of the blowback against civil rights. If that’s something you’re not proud of, then I guess reconsider your party preferences.

Jacob May 27, 2013 at 9:49 pm

How dare you claim that Robert Byrd is still alive, and is still a Senator!

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