Gambling On Gay Marriage


Most American Jews, who continue to overwhelmingly vote Democratic, will likely see President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that he supports gay marriage as further reason to vote for him. After all, a “Jewish values” poll released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found 81 percent support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Meanwhile, those Jews who are uncomfortable with same-sex marriage — mainly Orthodox Jews and older Jews — were already indisposed to vote for Obama, given the perception in these communities that he is insufficiently pro-Israel.

“People who are traditionally religious in recent years have moved to the Republican side of the aisle,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose firm is based in Washington, D.C. “This is one more brick in the wall. No one’s going to say I would have voted for him, but for this stance.”

Presumably the gamble Obama made is that by going out on a limb in support of same-sex couples, he’ll inspire more enthusiasm — not just votes, but activism and campaign contributions — from his liberal base, including the many Jews in that base.

In an e-mail response to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun magazine and a leader in the Renewal movement, certainly seemed inspired: “This is the first time in four years that Obama has taken a risk for a compassionate principle, and for that he will certainly get more support from Jews than he might otherwise have gotten, because Jews are the most liberal voting bloc in the U.S.”

The president’s words prompted congregants at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, also known as the LGBT Synagogue, to donate to the president’s campaign, said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of the West Village synagogue. She added that she thinks the president should also take steps to ensure that marriages conducted in the states where they are legal are recognized across the country.

“This decision will galvanize Obama’s base, which has so far been lukewarm,” said Jay Michaelson, founder of Nehirim, a nonprofit organization that hosts retreats for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews. “Obama is facing a 10-to-1 disadvantage in terms of SuperPAC funding. So if he can energize his base, that will be a net benefit.”

The risk he is taking, however, is of alienating those swing voters — including those traditional Jews who agree with the Democrats on economic issues — who are uncomfortable with same-sex marriage.

Take Jonathan Wolf, the co-chair of Orthodox Jews for Obama who travels across the country arguing that “Barack is A Blessing.” He said he has “mixed feelings” about the president’s newfound support for gay marriage, but emphasized that many Orthodox Jews still have far more in common with the president than with his opponent.

“People who support President Obama in general will understand that his views on social issues are not the same as ours, but certainly the Republicans’ aren’t either,” he said. “We have profound disagreements with Gov. [Mitt] Romney on fair taxation, and health care and constraining the banks and environmental issues. That’s where Orthodox Democrats line up very comfortably with Democrats.”

What most disturbs some Orthodox voters in Obama’s declaration is his insistence on adding marriage to a bundle of rights they believe same-sex couples otherwise do deserve, such as hospital visiting rights, inheritance and others typically accorded in civil unions, say experts, observers and political operators.

“Most Americans overwhelmingly, even those who are pious, would look away from civil unions. It’s the name, the concept, the word ‘marriage’ that … we still believe is man and woman,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld, who worked in the 1990s for Gov. George Pataki and now works at Bernstein Investment Research and Management.

With the caveat that political analysts are still trying to sort out the impact of Obama’s words last week, Wiesenfeld predicts that they will amount to a “net negative” for the president. “Even religious blacks have a problem with this,” he pointed out.

Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn posits a different scenario, however. Because of a perception in the Orthodox world that Obama is not enough of a friend to Israel, liberal voters for whom Israel’s security is also important could turn to the Republican candidate. The president’s announcement might make them reconsider in Obama’s favor, Kahn said, and those votes could be significant in certain states.

“At this point, the percentage of people in the Orthodox community who are going to be swayed more negatively on Obama is very small,” Kahn said. “Among the Orthodox community who are going to be swayed positively, there might be … some that view this as an affirmation of the kind of domestic public policy they subscribe to.”

Because Jews are only about 2 percent of the population, they don’t play much of a role in determining elections. Also, Jewish populations are concentrated in reliably Democratic states such as New York and California.

But in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio, the Jewish vote matters more, Kahn said. In addition, Jews account for a disproportionate share of campaign donations.

In the last election, Obama went out of his way not to offend traditionalist Catholics or white Evangelical voters, Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, said. Obama knew they probably wouldn’t vote for him, so his goal was to avoid mobilizing them against him. This time around, the president doesn’t have the option of using that tactic; those groups are already actively organizing as a result of his decision to require Catholic employers to include contraceptive coverage in their health plans.

Evangelicals who had reservations about Romney’s Mormon faith are taking a closer look now, Berlinerblau said. Romney will exploit the gay marriage issue to further energize the Republican base, and Obama will do the same with the Democratic base.

“The conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals were so whipped up into a tizzy [by the contraception requirement] that the Obama camp concluded that they’re energized, they’re mobilized and they’re never going to give him a hearing,” Berlinerblau said. “They’re not going to siphon off votes there, so they might as well energize the base.”

Sixty-five percent of Jewish voters were leaning Democratic as of 2011, compared to 29 percent leaning Republican, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. That represents a shift in Jewish allegiances; in 2008, only 20 percent were leaning Republican.

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