Why Have So Many US Senators Come Out for Marriage Equality Lately?

Written by scott on April 5th, 2013

US Capitol BuildingWhy has the last month seen such a rush of Senators supporting marriage equality? Nate Silver, our community’s statistics guru, explains. From 538.com:

The hypothesis implied by the model is that this timing reflects when same-sex marriage began to reach a national majority (or at least a plurality) in some polls. Otherwise, it is hard to understand why same-sex marriage endorsements increased considerably in the Senate in 2011. Democrats had just come off a very bad election year, in which they were punished by voters in part for being too liberal. President Obama had not yet endorsed same-sex marriage. It had not yet won any victories at the ballot booth (as it would in 2012). However, by 2011, it had become possible to argue that support for same-sex marriage had become the majority position. By extension, it was also reaching majority status in more and more states. The perception of majority status may influence the politics of the issue in profound ways. Mr. Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage last year may have been typical in this sense. Once it became arguable that support for same-sex marriage represented a majority view, it became harder for a blue-state Democratic president not to support it.

So basically it’s because marriage equality is now perceived to be be the majority position, and the Supreme Court hearings just goosed the whole thing along. But will it last?

While there will almost certainly be a few more endorsements over the next year or two, it’s very likely that the rate of increase will slow down. Some of this is just a mathematical necessity: a bounded quantity (there are only 100 senators) cannot continue to grow exponentially forever. More than that, however, if the recent cavalcade of endorsements is caused in part by senators perceiving that same-sex marriage has potentially become the national majority position, endorsements will begin to decelerate once it has become unambiguously the majority stance. Some senators will continue to oppose it, either because it does not yet constitute a majority position in their states (like Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, they may say it should be decided at the state level), or because they oppose it on moral grounds, or because they are more concerned about a primary challenge than the general election.

So let’s keep the pressure on the Democratic Senators now (strike while the iron is hot, and all that)!

Politico says that even with the change of heart, Senators are being remarkably careful about how they’re endorsing marriage equality:

There’s clearly a new playbook for senators just now coming out for gay marriage: quietly post something on Facebook, slip it into your Tumblr feed or release a statement to friendly media outlets. What most lawmakers are not doing is talking for the cameras… But for all the hoopla over their announcements, combined with media coverage of last month’s Supreme Court arguments on the issue, these moments are scripted to be public — but not too public. There’s little footage available for opponents to use in the next campaign or live interviews with reporters who might ask difficult or inconvenient questions. The fact that so many of these announcements are coming from lawmakers who are retiring or just reelected helps make it even safer for them to take a stand.

Gotta be gay friendly. But not too gay friendly, if you know what I mean.

Which GOP Senators might be next? Elahe Izadi at the National Journal has some guesses:

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – What she’s said: If there’s only one more Republican that flips, it’s probably going to be Murkowski. She told the Chugiak-Eagle River Star that her views are “evolving” but stopped short of endorsing gay marriage. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is a change afoot in this country in terms of how marriage is viewed,” she told the paper.

The political calculus: Murkowski indicated that where she falls on gay marriage could depend on where Alaskans stand. The state passed an amendment in 1998 that defines marriage as between a man and woman. But there are signs that it’s not political suicide to support gay marriage even in a heavily Republican state like Alaska. Her Democratic colleague, Sen. Mark Begich, has come out in favor of gay marriage, and he is up for reelection in 2014.

Hit the link above for the other four.


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