Opponents of same-sex marriage are on a 32-state winning streak. On Tuesday, Maryland, Washington, Maine, and Minnesota voters will have an opportunity to break that streak. Through September, polls suggested Marylanders were almost certain to come down on the side of marriage equality, becoming the first state to legalize gay marriage by ballot initiative. Now, that's in doubt — big-time.
Cue Brad Pitt's generous $100,000 donation.
First, a brief primer. In Maryland as well as Washington, anti-gay marriage groups have launched ballot initiatives to attack new marriage equality legislation. Washington's Referendum 74 gives voters the option to veto a marriage equality bill signed into law by Governor Chris Gregoire in early February. The Maine GOP is fighting marriage equality activists, who are taking a swing at a 2009 ballot measure that repealed an early marriage equality bill. A full sweep would bring the number of states allowing same-sex marriage to nine in short order.
Through early fall, polls showed cause for optimism for marriage equality advocates. As of August, polling found that the same-sex marriage law enjoys majority support in Maryland — 54% in favor to 40% opposed. One recent Goucher College poll produced near-identical numbers. But some commentary and new polling from the Baltimore Sun (finding 47% oppose same-sex marriage, 46% support it, and 6% are undecided) suggest Maryland could be the 33rd state to reject gay marriage by popular ballot.
Unfortunately, Maryland's slide from national inspiration to cause for despair was all-too-predictable. The September Baltimore Sun poll that gave same-sex marriage a 10-point lead over opposition noted that 12% of those polled were undecided or refused to respond. The previous 32 state ballot contests have proven that voters who report themselves as "undecided" before election day aren't actually undecided. They're most likely going to oppose marriage equality.
Election day could be a jarring disappointment — or, less likely, a stunning upset. The 6% of the Maryland electorate that's still "undecided" is much more likely to vote against gay marriage or abstain. Moreover, opposition to marriage equality on election day has always been higher than pre-election polls report. For example, North Carolina voters weren't shy about their support for an amendment banning same-sex marriage — polls showed a 15-point margin in the weeks preceding the election — yet the measure passed by a whopping 20 points.
Opinion could be higher or lower than polls have shown by two, three, or four points because of the margin of error. With few polls and several different methodologies, not to mention vastly different findings, it's tough to get a fix on any average.
The sum of the effects that coverage isn't tallying means opponents of marriage equality may come into an unanticipated majority on Election Day and win by a margin in the mid-teens. Of course, if that 6% "undecided" bloc bucks the trend set in polling on prior ballots and votes to legalize gay marriage, and the margin of error turns out to have concealed three extra points of support for same-sex marriage, advocates could rack up 10 points more than predicted.
The wild cards in Maryland will be the last-minute campaign spending and organizing that may not have registered in polls. Mega-donor Brad Pitt is in good company, joining Bill Gates, who recently donated $500,000 to Washington marriage equality efforts, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sent $250,000 to Maryland and another $250,000 to be split among Maine, Minnesota, and Washington. This cash infusion may make a difference in the campaigns' spending war — especially if marriage equality advocates are able to reach Marylanders who haven't seen ads on Question 6.
Opponents of marriage equality have benefited from their own 11th hour benefactors. They're also banking on the late-in-the-game mobilization of black church leaders. They credit churches as already having precipitated a shift in opinion. In late September, 50% of black voters supported gay marriage while 25% were in opposition; as of a few days ago, 50% now object to legalizing same-sex marriage and 42% support marriage equality. These efforts will test recent findings from the Center for American Progress asserting that black churches and marriage equality activists are less in conflict than news coverage suggests.