Volume 5, Number 20 | May 18 -24, 2006
Howard Dean, whose 2004 presidential campaign relied so heavily on LGBT support, has made one awkward mistake after another on gay issues since assuming the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee last year. Some critics would say insult is a more appropriate word than mistake.
New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton voted against President George W. Bush’s insidious federal marriage amendment two years ago, but neither managed to find any words to praise gay and lesbian families or even any general concepts of fairness and dignity. Now, as a second Senate debate on the marriage amendment looms in June, both senators are interested in improving the “messaging” on the amendment debate and are reportedly amenable to suggestions from gay leaders that they say something affirmative about LGBT people and the value of equality.
All this goes back to Election Night 2004. After a day in which journalists were fed on erroneous exit polls that indicated an easy John Kerry victory, they struggled to rewrite the narrative real time on camera. With customary herd mentality, they seized on a piece of exit polling data—employed completely devoid of context or critical thinking—that 22 percent of voters said “moral values” motivated their choice of a presidential candidate. The script was written—the focus on gay marriage, including the 11 constitutional amendments contested that very day, sealed Kerry’s doom.
Democrats have been nervous ever since.
But Dean, Clinton, and Schumer—first among Democrats—should listen to a man they all know very well—longtime gay activist Ethan Geto, who managed the former Vermont governor’s New York efforts in 2004 and is a close confidante of the current 2008 Democratic frontrunner.
A study completed by Geto’s public relations firm, Geto & deMilly, and informed by an impressively detailed analysis of a wide array of polling data—and particularly by insights from Hunter College political scientist Ken Sherrill—goes a long way toward debunking the gay panic myths of 2004. It is a document that every Democrat on Capitol Hill should read and that should find its way into the hands of every television talking head poised to bloviate about the June amendment debate.
Among several key findings in the Geto & deMilly report, the first relates to the saliency of the moral values issue. The term means different things to different people. For some, it is about rousing gay men from their beds. For others, it means an immediate end to the war in Iraq, a crackdown on corporate fraud, an end to poverty, or LGBT demands for equality.
Even acknowledging that Bush captured a disproportionate share of these moral values voters, it is unclear whether that issue truly motivated their vote or they were reflecting back Republican “messaging” that emphasized that the president aimed to save the nation from moral peril. A classic chicken and egg problem, as the report notes. The available data suggest that moral values Bush voters decided early—that is, they were strongly predisposed to the president even before the campaign’s issues crystallized.
Regarding the anti-gay amendments, the report notes that of the three battleground states in which there was a ballot question, Kerry won two—Michigan and Oregon—and outperformed Gore’s 2000 tally in all three, including Ohio. Interestingly, Bush improved his performance in many states in 2004, but showed less growth in referendum states than elsewhere.
The Geto & deMilly report also questions whether Republicans were effective in turning out new evangelical voters based on the marriage issue. Among the 11 percent of the electorate who were first-time voters, less than 10 percent were primarily motivated by moral values, with more than twice as many concerned most about education. Estimates of the evangelical vote in 2000 and 2004 are identical—17 percent of the total.
The report concludes that Kerry fell into a “Karl Rove trap” that Democrats continue to risk running afoul of. The Republicans charged that Kerry was too liberal, and his instinctive response was to pull back on LGBT equality, among other issues. In the end, however, the most effective anti-Kerry swipe was not that he was too far to the left, but that he was wishy-washy, a flip-flopper who tailored his positions to prevailing winds.
Democrats have to be proud of their values or Americans are never going to elect them to protect theirs. Dean’s stumbles and Clinton and Schumer’s appeals for advice on the looming amendment debate are of a piece—squarely at the heart of the struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul.