Iowa On Same-Sex Marriage: It's Complicated

May 12, 2012
Originally published on May 12, 2012 7:17 pm

Immediately after President Obama announced his support this week for same-sex marriage, attention turned to politics. The outcome of this year's election will be determined by a handful of states — one of them is Iowa, where the politics of same-sex marriage are complicated.

Same-sex marriage is legal here, but three of the state Supreme Court justices upholding that 2009 decision were removed from office by voters a year later.

Still, the most recent polling shows that a solid majority of Iowans oppose changing the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Pollster Ann Selzer says despite the heated battles over the issue, the economy and jobs are what Iowa voters care about most.

Take Mary Wells and her husband Norman of Johnston, Iowa. She's 75. He's 76. They consider themselves independents.

She voted for Obama; he didn't. They won't say how they'll vote this year, but they say Obama's endorsement of gay marriage won't have an impact on that decision.

"I think there's more important things than talking about that," Norman Wells says.

He says he has no opinion on the matter either way.

Mike Hoover, 39, is a county employee in Altoona. He's an independent voter who leans Republican. He's still undecided this year, but he's not pleased with this week's news.

"Same-sex marriage ... I just think that it's wrong," he says. "I guess ... the Bible says marriage is supposed to be a man and a woman."

Hoover said this could make him more likely to vote for Mitt Romney.

Nationally, polls show that Americans over the years have become more accepting of same-sex marriage. That describes Des Moines resident Jim Polking, a retired salesman and Obama supporter.

"If you'd have asked me that question 10 years ago, I'd said I don't believe in that at all. But today I've changed my thoughts on it, and I think, why not?" he says. "I don't know if I would get up and applaud for it ... but I'm not going to object to it."

Activists disagree over whether the issue will have any real impact on the presidential contest in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats heads a conservative Christian organization called The Family Leader. He's a major player in Iowa politics.

"I believe this is a bad political risk for Obama. I think it's going to hurt him in Iowa," Vander Plaats says. "I actually think this could be the issue that could cost him the presidency."

On the other side is Des Moines attorney Sharon Malheiro, a founder of the group One Iowa, an organization working to keep gay marriage legal in Iowa.

"I don't think that this is going to cost Obama the election, this one issue. He's standing in favor of civil rights. There are plenty of people who will see that that's the right thing to do," she says. "But there's more to the president than my being able to get married. And there's more to the president than this statement."

Vander Plaats, however, promises to use the issue to motivate Christian conservative voters. But he says Romney needs to make it an issue as well.

"Mitt Romney is going to determine how this plays for Mitt Romney. But now that Obama's made it an issue, is Romney going to show clear leadership here?" he says. "Or is he going to start waffling? ... If he does that, the base will get demoralized."

Four years ago, candidate Obama carried Iowa easily. This year, it's expected to be much closer. That means getting out the base is especially critical for both campaigns. Same-sex marriage could play a role in that, even if most voters rank it well down their list of priorities.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, President Obama announced his support this week for same sex marriage, and immediately thereafter attention turned to politics. The outcome of this year's election will probably be determined in a handful of states. One is Iowa, where same-sex marriage has been legal because of a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision. NPR's Don Gonyea traveled to Iowa to talk with people about whether President Obama's new position will be a factor in their vote.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The politics of same-sex marriage in Iowa are complicated. It is legal, but three of the state Supreme Court justices behind that decision were removed from office by voters in 2010. Still, the most recent polling shows that a solid majority of Iowans oppose changing the state constitution to ban gay marriage. And pollster Ann Selzer says despite the heated battles over the issue, here is what Iowa voters care about most.

ANN SELZER: It's the economy, it's jobs. It's the economy, it's jobs.

GONYEA: Take Mary Wells and her husband Norman of Johnston, Iowa. She's 75. He's 76. Their political affiliation...

MARY WELLS: I'd say independent.

GONYEA: Independent for you too?

NORMAN WELLS: Yeah, 'cause I've voted for both parties before, so.

GONYEA: I asked if they voted for President Obama. She nods her head yes. He shakes his head no. They won't say how they'll vote this year. I ask if the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage will have any impact on that decision.

WELLS: It's not an issue for us, I don't think. No, sir.

WELLS: Well, I think there's more important things than talk about that.

GONYEA: Do you have an opinion on it one way or another?

WELLS: Uh, no.

GONYEA: In Altoona, Iowa, 39-year-old Mike Hoover, a county employee, was finishing his dinner last night at the Pizza Ranch restaurant. He's an independent voter who leans Republican. He's still undecided about this year, but is not pleased with this week's news.

MIKE HOOVER: Same-sex marriage, I think that, I just think it's wrong. I guess, you know, the Bible says that, you know, marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman.

GONYEA: Hoover says this could make him more likely to vote for Mitt Romney. Nationally, polls show that Americans, over the years, have become more accepting of same-sex marriage. That describes Des Moines resident Jim Polking, a retired salesman and Obama supporter.

JIM POLKING: If you'd have asked me that question 10 years ago I'd have said I don't believe in it at all. But today, I've changed my thoughts on it to I think why not, you know? I don't know if I would get up and applaud for it or anything like that, but I'm not going to object to it, so.

GONYEA: Activists disagree over whether the issue will have any real impact on the presidential contest in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats heads a conservative Christian organization called the Family Leader. He's a major player in Iowa politics. Here's his take.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: So, I believe this is a bad political risk for Obama. I think it's going to hurt him in Iowa. I actually think this could be the issue that cost him the presidency.

GONYEA: On the other side is Des Moines attorney Sharon Malheiro, a founder of the group One Iowa, an organization working to keep gay marriage legal in the state.

SHARON MALHEIRO: I don't think that this is going to cost Obama the election, this one issue. He's standing in favor of civil rights. There are plenty of people who will see that that's the right thing to do. But there's more to being president than my being able to get married. And there's more to the president than this statement.

GONYEA: Bob Vander Plaats promises to use the issue to motivate Christian conservative voters. But he says Romney needs to make it an issue as well.

PLAATS: Mitt Romney is going to decide how it plays for Mitt Romney. But now that Obama's made it an issue, is Romney going to show clear leadership here? Or is he going to start waffling, like, well, that's just my personal view. If he does that, the base will get demoralized.

GONYEA: Four years ago candidate Obama carried Iowa easily. This year, it's expected to be much closer. That means getting out the base is especially critical for both campaigns. Same-sex marriage could play a role in that, even if most voters rank it well down their list of priorities. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.