Gay Marriage Is A 2016 Litmus Test for Democrats

Elahe Izadi

Back in 2004, it was a given that a presidential candidate couldn’t win the Democratic nomination -- let alone the general election -- while supporting gay marriage. Less than decade later, Democrats understand they have no chance at winning without supporting gay marriage.

Hillary Clinton is merely the latest to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, as the Supreme Court readies to hear arguments this month on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 in California. But her announcement also fuels speculation over her 2016 presidential ambitions and ensures that anyone opposed to gay marriage will have trouble winning over the base.

“This is becoming an early litmus test for potential 2016 candidates,” said Democrat strategist and 2008 Clinton campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee. “You don’t have to be 100 percent for gay marriage but you have to at least be in favor of relationship equality.”

Public opinions on gay marriage have shifted dramatically over the past decade. An ABC News/Washington Postpoll released Monday shows that 58 percent of Americans support gay marriage, while only 36 percent say it should be illegal. That’s a complete reversal of public opinion from where it stood in 2003.

To win a Democratic primary, supporting gay marriage is shaping up to be a requirement: The poll found 72 percent of Democrats support same-sex marriage, up from 43 percent in 2004.

Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign’s 2012 spokesman, said on MSNBC shortly after Clinton’s announcement that “you can't be a Democratic candidate in 2016 and oppose same-sex marriage.”

Clinton’s announcement came through the Human Rights Campaign, and the group’s president told the Associated Press Monday that it’ll be "very difficult for any ultimate nominee, Republican or Democrat, to be against marriage equality” in 2016.

Potential 2016 Democratic candidates include Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who worked tirelessly to pass a gay marriage law in his state, which he then campaigned to protect in a voter referendum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was another early supporter of gay marriage, passing a 2011 law in the Empire State. Vice President Joe Biden famously forced President Obama’s hand in coming out in favor of gay marriage in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidates may handle gay marriage the same way they treated opposition to the Iraq war in the 2008 -- with each trying to prove their liberal bona fides on the issue. Then-candidate Barack Obama was able to effectively position himself against Clinton due to his opposition to the war. “Barack Obama got a lot of credibility for being the first one on this issue,” Elleithee said.

But Elleithee cautioned, if they all support gay marriage, it won’t matter much who supported it first. “I’m not sure if being the first one matters as long as you’re not the last one,” Elleithee said.

Clinton’s public opinion on same-sex marriage has changed, just like it has for other prominent Democrats. In 2008, Clinton favored civil unions over same-sex marriage, just like most of her primary opponents. In 2011, she spoke favorably of a newly-passed New York law legalizing gay marriage, but as Secretary of State, stopped short of saying she favored same-sex marriage. That would have been awkward since President Obama hadn’t come out in support of gay marriage.

The mounting pressure is building, even for Republicans. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a longtime opponent of gay marriage, changed his mind after his son told him he was gay. In the ABC/Washington Post poll, even a majority of Republicans between the ages of 18-49 thought gay marriage should be legal. But the response from Hill Republican leaders has been measured. The Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” assessing where the party needs to go leaves room on the matter.

“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be,” the report reads.