With debate and votes taking place around the state and polls showing a growing acceptance, the issue of same-sex marriage and domestic partner rights will likely be among a host of second tier issues that could determine which presidential candidate takes the state.
In a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll released this week, a majority of voters said the candidates’ stance on same-sex marriage would not affect the way they would vote.
But a significant minority say the issue is likely to move them away from President Barack Obama and toward his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
One in four respondents told pollsters Obama’s support of gay marriage would make it more difficult to support the incumbent president. That’s more than twice the number of voters who say it makes them more likely to support him.
Conversely, Romney’s opposition to the concept makes 23 percent of respondents say they are more likely to cast their ballot for him, while fewer, 19 percent, say his stance will hurt.
Meanwhile this week, votes by the Orange County Commission and public hearings in Jacksonville underscored the growing attention being paid to the issue following the 2008 constitutional amendment defining marriage in Florida as an institution solely reserved for unions between one man and one woman.
Over the past several months, voters in several cities have passed local ordinances or proposed referenda that guarantee domestic partner rights, whether for same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples.
Backers say the efforts signify the growing acceptance of nontraditional relationships, both straight and gay, by providing protections for committed couples similar to those enjoyed by married pairs.
“In some ways the 2008 ballot measure on marriage really made people stop and think about and have to acknowledge the discrimination that gay couples face,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “The irony is that in passing the amendment, the folks behind it have accelerated the conversation and the growth of support for domestic partner protections and civil unions.”
Critics, however, say the local votes are incremental attempts to weaken and ultimately overturn the 2008 amendment that was approved by 62 percent of voters and is similar to those in place in 31 other states.
“I think our opponents realize that they can’t win on the gay-marriage issue,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “It’s very hard for them to win, so they are trying to advance their cause any way they can. From our standpoint, their real goal is incrementalism and trying to chip away at things.”
Domestic partner initiatives are popping up around the state.
Orange County Commissioners voted 6-1 this past week to follow Orlando city officials’ lead and passed a local ordinance creating a “domestic partner registry” under which residents, straight or gay, can designate a partner who can make hospital visits, health care decisions and burial arrangements among other duties.
Similar initiatives have either taken place or are underway in Volusia County, Gulfport, Tampa, St Petersburg, Pinellas County, Clearwater, Sarasota and elsewhere.
“There is a great deal of interest and support for providing a handful of vital protections for gay couples and unmarried straight partners,” Smith said.
Opponents of domestic partnership arrangements say that by carving out yet another special class, the initiatives weaken the legitimacy of same-sex marriage bans that have proven popular around the country.
“It undermines the basis legally for the marriage amendments, whether that be in law or whether through a state constitutional amendment,” Stemberger said.
It remains unclear whether the domestic partnership issue and Obama’s recent public support for gay marriage will have any impact in November on an electorate expected to be fixated on the economy, health care and other issues more commonly dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
Stemberger said that a candidate’s stance on domestic partnerships may not equate to huge swings in the polls, but Obama’s support for same-sex marriage may elicit a more dramatic response.
A Q-Poll released this week indicated that while two thirds of voters don’t care about the president’s stance, more than twice as many of those who do, say it makes Obama a less attractive candidate.
“The president has taken an enormous risk politically and he is seeing the fallout of that,” Stemberger said.
Smith agreed it is a risk – but said that’s exactly what will push the outcome the other way.
“When we get to November it is going to be a net positive for the president,” Smith said. “I think people respect it when someone takes a principled stand when there are political risks involved.”
Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown says the issue won’t make a huge dent in the president’s re-election chances in the fall, but even a small swing may prove critical in swing states like Florida, which have been hotly contested races in the past.
“The economy is what matters overwhelmingly and it moves both men and women,” Brown said. “..(Gay marriage and domestic partnership) issues rank relatively low on the priority scale, but the numbers are the numbers.”
Material from Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida was used in this report.