WASHINGTON — Four years after it burst onto the national stage, same-sex marriage is back as an election-year issue, thanks to its court-ordered legalization in California.
It could help Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
The potential boost comes from social conservatives, who've been lukewarm about the Arizona senator but might become energized by the issue of marriage and turn out to vote. They're more likely to vote for McCain than Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent.
"It probably helps McCain," independent pollster Brad Coker said. "It probably increases the chances he'll get some additional conservative votes out of it."
Yet it's not as solid a boost as it was for President Bush in 2004, when more Americans opposed gay marriage, and social conservatives surged to polling places to approve constitutional amendments banning it in 13 states, including such pivotal presidential election battlegrounds as Missouri and Ohio.
"This year is very different than 2004," said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for gays, lesbians and transgenders.
He said that other issues such as Iraq, the economy and rising gasoline and food prices had pushed marriage down on the national priority list. And Americans have grown somewhat more tolerant of same-sex marriage, he said.
"The American people have moved in the direction of marriage equality. Not by an overwhelming number, but they have moved. And even if they haven't moved as much as we'd like them to, the intensity of this issue isn't the same as it was in 2004."
Indeed, a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that the country still opposes gay marriage, but not by as much. The poll found 38 percent supporting gay marriage, up from 32 percent in 2004, and 49 percent opposing it, down from 56 percent in 2004.
The poll also found that the ranks of Americans who call the issue "very important" to their votes decreased slightly, from 32 percent in 2004 to 28 percent today.
Another mitigating factor is that gay marriage is largely seen as a settled issue in the majority of states; 26 now have constitutional amendments banning it. "If it's already passed, it's a non-issue," Coker said.
Yet the California decision — and the start of gay weddings there this week — still could help McCain.
For one, Coker, suggested, it could "light a fire under people in other states" to get proposed amendments on their ballots. For another, it serves as a reminder of the importance of judicial appointments for the next president, a key issue for social conservatives.
They already care more about gay marriage than other voters do. The Pew survey found that 49 percent of white evangelicals call the issue very important to their votes, the same as four years ago, while 25 percent of Roman Catholics call it very important, up from 19 percent in 2004.
Catholics will be a key voting bloc in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and white evangelicals could play a vital role in Republican states such as Virginia and North Carolina where Obama thinks he can win.
Ferrel Guillory, the director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, noted that McCain lost roughly one out of four primary votes in his state even after clinching the Republican nomination, calling it a sign that the senator needs to shore up his base.
North Carolina is one of 18 states that have laws banning gay marriage but not constitutional amendments.
"If we had another flurry of referenda in the states, it would help Republicans," Guillory said. "It's one of those issues that brings marginal voters to the polls. A lot of social conservatives are marginal voters. They come out if something excites them. So far, McCain is not the spark that excites them."
WHERE CANDIDATES STAND ON GAY ISSUES
Against same-sex marriage.
Split on efforts to stop it; for Defense of Marriage Act but against constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Supports "don't ask, don't tell" gay policy in military.
Opposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Against same-sex marriage.
Also against efforts to stop it, including Defense of Marriage Act and a proposed constitutional amendment.
Against "don't ask, don't tell" gay policy in military.
For Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
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