Seeing a pathway to more victories, same-sex marriage advocates celebrated Tuesday night when they finally won at the ballot box for the first time after 32 straight defeats.
Traditional marriage advocates, however, argued it was premature to characterize Tuesday's votes as some type of decisive turning point.
Same-sex marriage was legalized by voters in Washington, Maine and Maryland, while a proposal to ban it through constitutional amendment was defeated in Minnesota. The existing statute against gay marriage remains on the books there.
"These were difficult states for conservatives, especially for social conservatives, but even in these states we came very near," said Princeton professor Robbie George, a high-profile traditional marriage advocate and a member of the Deseret News editorial advisory board.
George noted that in each state where the margins were narrow, traditional marriage supporters were badly outspent. George also took some solace in the fact that the marriage issue ran well ahead of Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket in deep blue — or very Democratic — states.
On the other hand, Jonathan Cowan, the president of Third Way, a centrist Democrat think tank, framed the results as a breakthrough.
"We have crossed a crucial threshold in our country’s journey on marriage for gay couples," Cowan said, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. "For the first time in history, the people of a state voted directly to allow committed gay and lesbian couples to marry."
"That means," he added, "we’ve put our past 0 and 32 record behind us and finally refuted marriage opponents’ constant refrain: That every time marriage has come up for a ballot initiative vote, it has lost. That record of defeat is now relegated to the history books, and we are beginning a new season when marriage can win.”
Traditional marriage advocates were chastened but remained determined. "We were outspent 8-to-1, and no one was willing to speak for marriage, while the whole Democratic establishment and Hollywood campaigned for marriage," wrote Maggie Gallagher in the National Review. "Last night really is a big loss, no way to spin it."
In Maine, gay-marriage advocates canvassed door to door over the last three years, engaging in one-on-one persuasion. They believe the work made an impact, as areas where they worked turned in higher margins than those they missed, according to the AP.
The three-year effort began after the voters in 2009 overturned a statute allowing same-sex marriage that had been passed by the Legislature by a 53-47 margin. This direct-persuasion model, which resulted in more than 200,000 conversations, according to Mainers United, is now viewed by advocates as a path forward in places where they have previously lost at the polls.
Where same-sex marriage advocates were exultant, traditionalists were assessing how these changes might affect their efforts.
"We have noticed for some time that the facts on the ground are changing," said Bill Duncan, director the Marriage Law Foundation, a nonprofit conservative advocacy group. "The coalition for redefining marriage has coalesced into something quite solid," he added, noting the shift within the Democratic party over the past year.
One key factor this year was the willingness of major corporations, including Amazon, Costco and General Mills, to come out aggressively in support of same-sex marriage, Duncan said.
"In some ways these companies may lead public opinion, and in some ways it reflects their judgment that public opinion has changed. They wouldn't do that if they felt they would get massive consumer desertion."
"Voters are hearing a very united voice," Duncan said, pointing to corporations, Hollywood, President Barack Obama's recent shift and the silence among most Republican leaders. Even among religious groups, like the Catholic Church, where the leaders are, Duncan added, there is enough emphasis on dissenting voices to muddle the message.
"It's not surprising that voters would think, 'Everyone is going down this road.'"
"I don't believe in inevitability," George said. "I remember from 1971 through about 1980 when we were told that the pro-life position is dead. 'Young people are against it. It's just a few old priests who support it. They'll die out soon. It's a generational thing.'
"What do we find 40 years later?" George asked. "Abortion didn't go away, didn't stop being an issue. The pro-life position has greater support now than it did in the 1970s. Young people are more pro life than their parents."
"There are no inevitabilities in history," George said. "There are no Hegelian laws that dictate that it is going one direction or another."
The long-term prognosis? "It depends on how effectively the competing forces make their case before the people," George said.
The difficulty, Duncan acknowledged, is that the arguments for traditional marriage are complicated: "We have to recognize that we are playing on a different field that will call for creativity that we haven't developed yet."
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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