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How North Carolina gay-marriage vote could hurt Obama reelection bid

President Obama is in an awkward spot on gay marriage, and Tuesday's vote to ban gay marriage in North Carolina – a swing state – highlights a potential vulnerability in November.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / May 8, 2012

Signs display messages about gay marriage in front of the Devon Park United Methodist Church polling site on Tuesday in Wilmington, N.C.

Ken Blevins/The Star-News/AP

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Los Angeles

Coming only days after two prominent members of the Obama administration professed their support for gay marriage, a vote on the subject Tuesday in North Carolina – a key swing state – could complicate the president's reelection efforts.  

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The ballot initiative would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, and polls suggest that it is likely to pass. Yet earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered their support for gay marriage. Caught between the swing voters who could tilt the presidential election and his more-liberal base, President Obama has so far resisted pressure to endorse same-sex marriage even as he has continued to solicit gay donors aggressively.

This has put him in an increasingly tough spot – and the North Carolina vote could make his balancing act even tougher. 

“The gay marriage issue is an awkward one for Obama at present, given his differing views on the issue with his own vice president and other administration officials,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “It's an issue that Obama wishes would go away until after the November elections. The North Carolina vote makes it less likely Obama will get his wish.”

A poll by the Raleigh, N.C.-based firm, Public Policy Polling found that 55 percent of respondents support the amendment while 39 percent oppose. But the majority of voters don’t know that the amendment not only gets rid of same-sex marriage but outlaws civil unions and domestic partnerships as well.

“When people are informed of this, support for the amendment drops significantly,” says Matthew Hall, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 29 states have passed constitutional amendments that ban marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Of those, 20 are red states that consistently vote for Republican presidential candidates. North Carolina is the only Southern state without such a ban. 

“From a regional perspective, North Carolina is late to the game,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia and author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”

But in some ways, that could be construed as positive news for the president. The fact that it has taken North Carolina so long to consider the issue "suggests that North Carolina may in fact be more liberal than its Southern neighbors,” she adds.

Others go further, suggesting that passage of the measure could help Mr. Obama in North Carolina. 

“It gives his base voters something else to get angry and get involved about when November comes around,” says Professor Hale.

But in other ways, the demographics of the issue work against Obama.

"This is not solely a Republican issue,” says Professor Brown. “African-Americans, who not only often comprise a significant portion of the Democratic Party in Southern states but are also strongly religious, have typically been against gay marriage."

Regardless, it was a missed opportunity for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to make headway in North Carolina, says Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association.

He is surprised that Mr. Romney didn’t come out in favor of the North Carolina amendment as the Rev. Billy Graham has. “If you are looking to gain political support, there are a lot of worse places you can stand than next to Billy Graham,” he says.

He also notes that Obama called off a planned trip to the state Tuesday. “He obviously didn’t want to be asked awkward questions about natural marriage," Mr. Fischer says. "This issue is the third rail of his campaign right now.”

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