Like President Obama, Americans are “evolving” in the direction of greater tolerance. But the number is actually down slightly from last year – 50 percent today compared with 53 percent a year ago, according to Gallup. And in several important swing states that Obama won by slim margins in 2008, strong majorities have voted to ban same-sex marriages in state referendums. (North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio come to mind.)
Since older, more conservative voters are more likely to show up at the polls on Election Day, Obama will need to reenergize the younger voters who propelled him to victory last time.
The latest poll on the subject may be better news for Mr. Romney than it is for Obama.
But while 13 percent say Obama’s shift will make them more likely to vote for him, twice as many – 26 percent – say it will make them less likely to give him their vote. Perhaps more significant in a very close race, those “less likely” voters include 10 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Independents.
Still, same-sex marriage may be an even trickier issue for Romney to navigate.
Given the trend in public attitudes, it’s relatively easy to paint him “on the wrong side of history” for his opposition to gay marriage, especially among younger voters (ages 18 to 34), 70 percent of whom approve. Women, too, are more likely to be comfortable with gay marriage than men – a portion of the electorate Republicans need to attract in greater numbers.
Romney’s religion – he’s a Mormon – may not help among undecided and even some otherwise-conservative voters. It’s a subject he’d rather not have to address.
But Romney this week stressed that his longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage is “based entirely upon a civil understanding of the needs of a society like our own.”
Pressed by a television interviewer in Omaha, Neb., he said: “It’s not a religious decision. It’s based upon what I believe is right for the nation and the building of strong generations for the future” – meaning a society and nation in which married couples consist only of one man and one woman.
Complicating the issue for Romney is the Washington Post article this week detailing how Romney as a high school student led a group of boys who forcibly held down and hacked off the long hair of a younger student who was gay. Romney claims not to recall the incident, but several other boys involved remembered it with regret for their bullying behavior, according to the lengthy report.
Also, Romney lost traction on his economic message when he sent mixed messages on whether gay couples (whether or not they’re married) should be allowed to adopt children.
On Friday, both Romney and Obama attempted to shift the dominant political discussion from same-sex marriage to economic issues.
But it’s sure to be on the minds of conservatives Saturday when Romney gives the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., “the largest Christian university in the world,” as it bills itself, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"This is a golden-opportunity moment for Mr. Romney to solidify his purported support among social conservatives," Richard Scarborough, head of Vision America, a large evangelical organization, told The Wall Street Journal. "Many of us are disappointed so far by the unwillingness of the Romney camp to take a strong stance.”
Although Romney has opposed same-sex marriage all along, Evangelicals and other social conservatives want him to say so loud and clear at a time when he’d rather talk about other issues.
On one thing, Romney, Obama, and those of all political persuasions can agree. As Romney said, gay marriage is “a very tender and sensitive topic.”