On most dimensions, 2012 was a collective shrug: an equivocal status quo election. The voters didn’t like the situation, but they also didn’t change it. They doubted that either of the presidential candidates could fix it. So they went with divided government and leaving bad enough alone.
Gay Americans are the exception. The big exception. For them the election was the culminating breakthrough of a breakthrough year.
Going into the election, gay marriage supporters had lost every state referendum or initiative on the issue, more than 30 in all. It was the most perfect record of failure in modern American politics. Assuming the preliminary tallies all hold, this year produced perfect success. Three states—Maine, Maryland, and Washington—passed referenda affirmatively enacting same-sex marriage by public plebiscite. One other, Minnesota, rejected a constitutional ban. That’s four for four.
National polls began to show inconsistent pluralities or even majorities for gay marriage a couple of years ago, and moral disapproval of same-sex relationships—the single best indicator of antagonism toward homosexuality—shifted below 50 percent around the same time. But changing public opinion didn’t immediately filter into electoral politics, partly because opponents of gay marriage were more passionate on the issue than (nongay) proponents, and partly because the polls tended to overstate real-world support for gay rights.
Now the politics have crossed over to where the polls are. The nation’s argument over marriage is not over. But between President Obama’s historic endorsement of it in May (he is gay people’s LBJ), the Democratic Party’s embrace of it in its platform this past summer, and now the electorate’s imprimatur in all the states where it was tested, gay marriage is mainstream and will never return to the backwaters.
Politically, Republicans are increasingly in the position of a battallion pinned down by friendly fire. Social conservatives will continue to treat opposition to gay marriage as a litmus test, but that same opposition will be increasingly unattractive to younger and moderate voters that the party needs to attract as its base of white conservatives shrinks. So the party, on gay rights, is where Democrats used to be: torn between two constituencies it can’t afford to lose. Democrats, on the other hand, have come to see gay rights as a political winner and, if anything, will deepen their commitment. Those trends were evident but implicit until November 6. They are quite explicit now.