On the day after voters in 11 states delivered a resounding rebuke to the concept of same-sex marriage, the liberal city that helped make same-sex unions an election year issue assessed the role its exuberant, two-month wedding march may have played in President Bush's reelection.
Some analysts credited San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to let gay couples marry here without a court's blessing with inspiring the antigay amendments that gave the president's conservative base a reason to go to the polls in crucial battleground states like Ohio. "It gives them a position to rally around," said U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "That whole issue [gay marriage] has been too much, too fast, too soon. People aren't ready for it."
Others, meanwhile, disputed that Newsom's actions in February--three months before Massachusetts started allowing gays and lesbians to wed under an order from the state's highest court--were a significant factor in Bush's victory. "We did not see a backlash yesterday in those 11 states so much as revealed in vote form an existing prejudice which was used in an inflammatory fashion for political gain," said Assemblyman Mark Leno, chairman of the California legislature's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus.
Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, is scheduled to introduce legislation in December that would legalize marriage for gay couples in California. A dozen same-sex couples and the city of San Francisco, meanwhile, have sued the state to overturn its laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Newsom, who cited Bush's call in January for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as motivating his decision to open City Hall to same-sex nuptials, took the offensive Wednesday when he was asked whether he had second thoughts about his timing. "I find it pretty repugnant in a day and age where we are all students of history that people would question, based upon strong beliefs, someone or somebody that at least stands up," he said.
The 37-year-old Democrat then suggested that if political observers wanted a scapegoat for Bush's win, they would be better off looking to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned for the president in Ohio last week, or Osama bin Laden's latest taped missive to the American people.
In exit polls conducted for the Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, moral values were cited as the top issue in the presidential vote, just ahead of the economy and terrorism. No issue tapped into the moral unease of voters more than the same-sex marriage issue, and the placement of the issue on the ballot in state elections helped keep it in voters' minds.
The polls showed that 35% of the respondents support civil unions but not marriage for gay couples, and they backed Bush 52% to 47%. A slightly bigger group, 37%, said same-sex couples should get no legal recognition. That group supported Bush by 70% to 29%, according to the polls.
But in a postmortem released Wednesday on the 11 state constitutional amendments preserving marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force rejected the idea that using same-sex marriage to turn out evangelical Christians was a decisive factor for Bush in the three swing states where the issue was on the ballot. The gay rights group noted that the president's Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, fared better in Oregon and Ohio than Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000, did four years ago, and tied Gore's performance in Michigan.
While activists struggled to put the most positive spin possible on the disappointing outcome by stressing that San Francisco's experiment had put a human face on same-sex marriage and bred support for granting gay couples rights that stop short of legal matrimony, they also noted soberly that the matter is a lot less clear-cut outside the city. "It is a legitimate question to examine whether some of the tactics that we have used have played a role in promoting a bigger backlash," said Lorri Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. "We didn't have control over what Gavin Newsom did, but we totally supported it.... Would there have been a smarter, more strategic way? I don't know."