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Why Prop. 8 Won

A Look at the Numbers for the Vote Against Gay Marriage


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The strange bedfellow alliance of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical Protestants that slapped a ban on gay marriage in California last week represents the most “ecumenical union since the fall of Rome.”

That’s the view of Richard Hecht, an acclaimed scholar in UCSB’s much-acclaimed religious studies department, whose clear-eyed take on the stunning passage of Proposition 8 cuts through the Babel of political scapegoating and speculation swirling around the election’s biggest surprise. “The issue of traditional marriage brought together this wild, very unlikely coalition,” Hecht told me. “You have the Catholics, who can’t stand the evangelical Protestants, who can’t stand the Catholics, and then the Mormons, who are outcasts, and hated by everyone. What was going on here?”

The extraordinary contradiction of voters denying a minority group the constitutional civil right to wed, on the very day Californians also helped shatter historic barriers of discrimination through Barack Obama‘s election, rocked political analysts, progressives and gay activists alike. The shock of Prop. 8 passing, after public opinion polls showed the initiative consistently losing throughout the campaign, generated a series of sometimes conflicting theories and ignited a volatile round of protest and accusation around the state and nation.

Amid a backdrop of escalating demonstrations in the streets, at Mormon temples and at Christian churches, a few talking heads posited that voters lied to pollsters to conceal anti-gay beliefs (seeing an “Ellen effect” similar to the now-debunked “Bradley effect” involving black candidates), while some gays targeted Obama (who tepidly opposed Prop. 8 while expressing personal opposition to gay marriage) and others blamed African Americans or Latinos (70 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics voted for the measure, exit polls showed).

The ridiculous homophobia in the African-American community has to be acknowledged and confronted,” wrote Dan Savage, a popular gay columnist and blogger, whose focus on the overwhelming black vote for Prop. 8 established one widespread, post-election, political meme.

However, a detailed examination of Election Day exit polling shows that the single, most determinative, identifying factor of Prop. 8 supporters was not race, gender, age, education, or income - but whether or not they attend church regularly. As Mark DiCamillo, director of the statewide Field Poll told me, “Religion trumped politics.”

The exit polls, done for TV networks by Edison Media Research, shows that:

  • 84 percent of those who said they attend church weekly, who represented one-third of the electorate, voted for Prop. 8. Those who go to church occasionally - 44 percent of the electorate opposed it, 54-to-46 percent, while the one-fifth of voters who said they never go to church voted no, 83-to-17 percent.
  • 81 percent of white evangelical voters, who represented almost one-fifth of the electorate, supported Prop. 8, while 64 percent of Catholics, almost one-third of the voters, backed it. No exit poll result was available for Mormons, who bankrolled about $15 million of the Yes-on-8 campaign, because the survey’s sample size of the group was not statistically significant.
  • Large numbers of regular churchgoers who voted in favor of 8 decided just before the election, according to a comparison of these polls and the final Field Poll, which closed one week before the balloting; this movement suggests that “regular church-goers, and especially Catholics, were more prone than other voters to be influenced by last-minute appeals to conform to orthodox church positions” articulated in and around Sunday services, two days before the election, DiCamillo said.

He defended his and other public polls, which always showed Prop. 8 behind, by noting that initiative backers steadily gained in surveys taken between July and October, an indication that the ecumenical appeals of the Yes on 8 campaign were working. By the final pre-election poll, double-digit leads once held by opponents had shrunk to just five points.

As a political matter, the data suggests that if gay marriage advocates return to the ballot in an effort to reinstate the right to wed, their campaign must find ways to more effectively reach out to and persuade communities of faith.

Amid the gloom for gay rights backers, there are two very bright spots: Eight years ago, the vote on Proposition 22, was 61-to-39 percent against gay marriage; this time, the margin was a small majority, 52-to-48. Also, while older voters supported Prop. 8, young voters - those between 18 and 29, who will make up an increasingly large portion of the electorate, strongly opposed it, 61-to-39 percent.

For more on my interview with Professor Richard Hecht, and the continuing fallout over Proposition 8, check out my blog at independent.com/capitolletters. Share your views with a comment there or by emailing me at roberts.capitol.letters@gmail.com.

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