Thursday, November 6, 2008

Premature blame on 8

Wednesday morning, I awoke fresh and ready to tackle the day. "The occupation is over!" I regaled anyone who would listen. Barack Obama's victory left me feeling like I was once again in America, a country that had been stolen out from under our feet.

I could hardly wait to get on the internet and find out how much Proposition 8 had been defeated by, and was surprised to find that the race hadn't been yet called. My concerns grew as I got deeper into the numbers, looking for hope amongst the county-level returns. Often the larger cities are slower in getting their voting returns together, so it seemed reasonable to hope that the margin would shift once the more densely populated precincts finished reporting.

But, after an hour of sifting through the partial returns, it became clear that the only likely outcome was that Proposition 8 would pass.

My day was ruined!

I was honestly shocked. In 2000, a similar measure passed in California handily, but by 2006, an anti-gay amendment was shot down in Arizona, and passed in South Dakota by only the slimmest of margins. I assumed that history was on our side, and that despite the polling data in California, we had passed a tipping point. I figured that any talk about similar gender marriage rights, even the most rabid ravings about it, would by now have made most voters immune to the shock of the idea.

In the wake of Proposition 8's passage, there has been a rush to "explain" why it happened. The most common explanation I've heard, from gays and straights, friends and radio pundits, is that the high turnout for Barack Obama energized racial/ethnic minority voters, who as church-going folk, tipped the balance in favor of 8.

This explanation just rubs me the wrong way, and I don't buy it. The conventional wisdom is that Black, Asian & Hispanic voters are against gay marriage, but I'm not convinced. My recollection from going over data for my thesis showed that rural people are by far the least likely to support gay marriage, and rural people are overwhelmingly White.
My recollection is that in several public opinion polls, racial minority groups were less likely to oppose similar gender marriage than Whites, but I'll need to dig those up if I want to bolster that point.

I spent much of the day today poring over results from Los Angeles, which is the only large county in California to break down results by congressional districts. After excluding the 30th congressional district (which contains West Hollywood, a bit of an outlier), the racial/ethnic makeup only explains about 0.4% to 3% of the variation between how people voted across the districts, depending on how you crank the numbers.

So, I remain unconvinced of the "explanation" that somehow racial/ethnic minority voters did the gays in.

So who does it serve to pitch these constituencies against one another? And why were so many people ready, with the barest shred of evidence, to believe it? This rush to blame seems entirely counter-productive. Who are the ones vehemently behind the anti-gay agenda? Get clear on who our real opponents are: White fundamentalist Christians.

Another potential explanation is about voter turnout. Here again, the conventional wisdom is likely to be misguided. Usually people assume that the anti-gay agenda has been used to whip up enthusiasm among the religious right, and that their increased turnout is what contributed to the passage of so many anti-gay measures.
While I suspect that whipping up anti-gay frenzy probably does raise money and enthusiasm for the Christian right in this country, if you take a good hard look at the numbers, it does not seem to increase voter turnout. In several of the past elections, high turnout has correlated fairly well with not supporting the anti-gay agenda of the Christian right.

In the recent California election, another suspect was the low voter turnout in San Francisco, so I took a look at how voter turnout correlated with support for Prop8, and again there's just not a lot going on there.

I suspect that the story is a lot more complicated, and I'm looking forward to delving in to try to figure it out.


  1. Trevor Hoppe's site has much more interesting commentary on this subject...

  2. amen...i think that we need to remember that christian fundamentalists are pretty much always our main enemy and they're so darn good at dividing the already fragile left, who are so easily led to self-destructive behavior

    hi bill! i'm reading your blog-a