Friday, May 25, 2012

Marriage, Obama, and Public Opinion

Glenn Greenwald asks:
The significant increase in support for marriage equality is strong evidence that Presidents can change public opinion with advocacy, yes?
To back up a bit...Nate Silver has the very tentative evidence that there has been a shift among African Americans; here's my contribution from Plum Line yesterday to what I suspect explains the shift, if it exists; and John Sides did an overview of it later yesterday and added some additional evidence about opinion leadership.

Which brings us to an excellent post by Scott Lemieux:
[A]ssuming arguendo that Obama’s position-taking has in fact increased support among African-Americans — this represents a fairly unusual political situation, in which 1)a stalwart part of the Democratic base 2)among which Obama is particularly popular has 3)a position that is in tension with much of the rest of the rest of the Democratic coalition 4)on a relatively low-priority issue for most voters 5)on which public opinion has been trending positively (including among African-Americans) anyway.   It’s not like this kind of dramatic shift can be replicated in all that many other cases.
Yes -- but there's more! The signal that's getting the response is an extremely strong one because it involves the president changing his position. That matters because it automatically made the president's advocacy front-page news; it also matters because anyone who wanted to keep her positions aligned with Obama's would, of course, have to switch.

The upshot of this is that if it is true, which we don't know yet, this is evidence of a situation in which a president may be able to affect public opinion, but it's one that isn't apt to show up very often at all or to be very useful. In particular, it doesn't apply at all to the most common situation, in which a president attempts to change public opinion by making a stronger, louder case for his already-declared policy position in order to sway people outside of his strongest supporters (who, usually, already agree with him).


  1. There's another angle to why this occurrence (if it's real) is unique to the SSM issue. It goes back to a theory I recently articulated on TNC's blog (which TNC took to heart), that a lot of the opposition to SSM is soft, consisting of people who oppose it nominally because they find it novel and strange at first but who really don't have strong feelings against it and who are in principle capable of getting used to the idea pretty quickly. I think that's basically what's happened in the last few years, with the apparently rapid shift in public opinion on this issue. In reading the polls, pundits have confused this group with Tony Perkins-style crusaders who see SSM as the next step in the collapse of civilization itself--a point of view that is, I suspect, much less widespread than the media thinks.

  2. @ Klyopod
    About your theory, that actually I think is one of the main frameworks that pro-equality forces use to understand opposition to SSM. That is that the crucial sort of "swing" voters on this issue in a lot of referendums really do fall into a category of "people who oppose it nominally because they find it novel and strange at first but who really don't have strong feelings against it". In fact the brief conversation I've had with someone who worked on the prop 8 campaign in a professional capacity in CA generally saw their biggest mistake was not convincing those types of voters about the importance of marriage equality from a family/important legal benefits standpoint and instead too many of those voters just treated it as an issue that was strange or weird.

    In terms of the broader point about public opinion and the Presidency I wonder if there was a significant shift in liberal/Dem opinions about welfare and welfare reform after Clinton embraced it in 95-96. Would that be a similar type of situation?

    1. If there was a shift on the welfare reform issue (and I have no idea if there was), it was probably just the effect of partisans tending to support whatever their party does. I believe what we're seeing about SSM runs deeper than that.

  3. JB, I think your explanation over at Plum Line is reason enough for the President to clearly state his positions for all issues and to change his more centrist ones to more liberal ones (i.e. deficit reduction to stimulus) if that is what he really believes.

    1. The problem with that is that it doesn't necessarily get him anything, and it has multiple risks. So: yes, it's possible that (say) if he came out for loosening drug laws that some Obama supporters who now tell pollsters they oppose it would then tell pollsters they support it. But what does that get him? I can't see how it helps.

      On the other hand, taking that position might hurt him with any swing voters who actually feel strongly the other way. It also, given that he wouldn't actually accomplish anything, might make him look like a weak loser, both among Washingtonians and among mass publics.

      The decision process was different with marriage because there's a group within the party who strongly supported it and only wanted him to say he supported it (compared to his old position) so he could basically make them happy just with the statement. Other issues might not work that way.

    2. Prohibition almost certainly meets all 5 criteria. I get JB's response that it doesn't "get you anything", but the issue with drugs and Obama is that it's basically the one issue where he lied to his base and flipped once he got into office.

      I'm not sure if it'll matter at all in the long or short term, but pot seems to be the one area where he reversed himself without explanation, and where he could change the national conversation if he wanted to.

      If the Ron Paul contingent where in any way organized enough to offer a donation bonanza to Obama for legalizing marijuana, don't you think he'd take the plunge?

    3. You need to separate two somewhat different things: changing public opinion and agenda setting.

      If BHO came out for legalization or decriminalization on marijuana, it would certainly make it a higher-profile issue.

      But is there a group right now that polls as in favor of the status quo but is generally indifferent about it *and* likes Obama a lot? I'm not sure about that. Also, it's not entirely certain that it would matter much if the polling shifted (with the caveat that I don't actually know what the polling looks like right now).

  4. Professor Bernstein,

    I'm on the "Obama for America" spam list and they sent me this today. Is it careful parsing or is Obama doing something really odd?

    "But it's also because we don't accept any money from Washington lobbyists or corporate-interest groups --not a dime. We don't want them owning any piece of this campaign or expecting any special consideration."


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