The 2012 presidential election was supposed to be about the economy, and even with President Obama's historic decision to make it known Wednesday that he supports same-sex marriage, that is still likely to be true.
But the president's decision to announce in an ABC News interview that he personally backs gay marriage could mean that at least one social issue may take a more prominent role in the election-year spotlight.
The decision carries risks for the president. Anyone doubting that clearly need look no further than the overwhelming support Tuesday in North Carolina for a gay marriage ban to be added to the state's constitution. That amendment was approved 61 percent to 39 percent.
The president and his re-election team are clearly gambling, however, that his now-open support for same-sex marriage will attract more voters than it repels, and allow him to make the choice between himself and Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, even sharper.
Romney opposes gay marriage. Indeed, he has said he supports a federal constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.
By taking a public stand on the contentious issue, Obama may do for Romney what the former Massachusetts governor has had trouble doing for himself — that is, energizing the Republican base, especially evangelical Christians, to rally behind the likely GOP nominee.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, made that very point in an interview:
"What everyone said was not going to be an issue in this election is now an issue. The president has made it an issue. This provides a very clear contrast between him and Mitt Romney. I think [Romney] may have been handed the key to support from social conservatives. Obama just turned up the heat and intensity."
Risking African-American Support
Another potential peril for Obama is that he alienates some of his heretofore most faithful supporters — African-Americans. Of all the groups represented in his political base, blacks are among the most churchgoing and hostile to the idea of gay marriage.
According to an October 2011 Pew Research poll, 62 percent of black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage.
But African-Americans have backed Obama to a lopsided degree — 96 percent support on Election Day 2008 with little if any drop-off since.
That could give the president and his re-election team less reason to be anxious about the effect of his support for gay marriage.
Like African-Americans, Latino voters also have a high church-attendance rate and many have similar antipathy to gay marriage. But their much stronger support for Obama over Romney could offset the fallout from the president's move.
While there are downsides to Obama's decision to go public with his support for gay marriage, there also was an upside.
Obama's campaign has sought ways to recapture the excitement of 2008, especially with younger voters, LGBT voters and liberals disappointed by the gap between his campaign promises of four years ago and what he's actually been able to accomplish.
A recent Gallup poll indicated that just about as many Americans favor gay marriage (50 percent) as oppose it (48 percent). But get inside those percentages, and you see some important demographic differences.
Younger voters especially are much more supportive of same-sex marriage than older voters. According to Gallup, voters aged 18 to 34 favor the legalization of gay marriage 66 percent to 33 percent.
Unfortunately, those younger voters tend to turn up to vote on Election Day at significantly lower rates than their older counterparts. Obama's support for same-sex marriage could help boost that young-voter turnout.
Independent voters favor gay marriage 57 percent to 40 percent, the same as college graduates. Moderates favor it by 20 percentage points — 58 percent to 38 percent.
His new public stance on gay marriage certainly could remind many of those voters of what they saw in Obama four years ago, motivating many of them to come out and vote for him instead of sitting it out in November.
Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org said:
"This is a historic day. The president's support for marriage equality is great news that's likely to energize progressive activists across the country."
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates legal equality for LGBT people, said in an interview:
"I'm thrilled, excited. It's a historic moment. I think that the president spoke from his heart, from a place of common humanity.
"His words ... give hope to LGBT Americans that, as he has always said, he sees them as a part of the American fabric.
"The leadership of the president, the words of the president, his coming out in support of an issue as important as marriage equality, and around which many are still struggling, still on a journey, will help those people."
Asked what difference he thought the president's decision would make on Election Day, Solmonese said:
"I think at the end of the day, this election will continue to be about the economy and about economic struggles we all face. As all contests like this, it will also be a question of character. What the president demonstrated today is that he is a person of deep conviction. We still have to win the fight for marriage equality."
One certainty is that Obama defused an issue that might have caused a ruckus at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Congressional Democrats and most of the party's delegates support same-sex marriage, and some politics watchers were suggesting there could be a high-profile effort to get a strong gay marriage plank in the party's platform. If the president had maintained his public opposition, he would have appeared to be out of step with his party on an important issue. That's never a good thing for a party leader facing what many think will be a close election.
Given that there is already some talk of punishing North Carolina for the constitutional ban on gay marriage, Obama didn't need the additional headache of being berated on his gay-marriage stance.
The Republican Response
Republicans were quick to try to convert what some saw as a virtue — the president's willingness to finally take a clear stand on one of the most controversial social issues of the day, what Solmonese called "character" — into a vice.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus characterized the president's move as a crass act of political opportunism, and Romney's position as principled:
"While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that."
It's true that Romney has long opposed gay marriage and civil unions. But when he ran for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1994 and later for governor, he tried to square the circle by leaving the impression that he was otherwise a strong defender of equal rights for LGBT Americans.
The same criticism that was made against Obama — that his stance of being for gay equality but against same-sex marriage — could just as easily be made against Romney, since it's hard to understand how one can be both for equal rights for gays and against gay marriage.
In any event, by removing that contradiction from his position on the issue, Obama now is free to attack Romney for his inconsistency.
Perkins, at the Family Research Council, said that, in his opinion, the advantage would go to Romney and social conservatives. He told us:
"Ten of the 16 battleground states have marriage amendments. The only thing that stands between the votes these people made and same-sex marriage is the Defense of Marriage Act," he said. "They're going to have to vote for someone who wants to overturn the work these people did on marriage."
Perkins added that he thought the president's action could affect his grip on the African-American vote, noting that in Tuesday's vote on an anti-gay marriage amendment in North Carolina, majority black precincts voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment.
Perkins also pointed to the 2004 presidential election, when President George W. Bush won the swing state of Ohio with the help of voters who turned out to vote for a ballot initiative promoted by Republicans that would ban same-sex marriage.
The number of conservatives voting that year in Ohio increased from 2000, and Bush made inroads with African-American voters, Perkins said. He added that black voters supported the Ohio anti-gay marriage initiative by 61 percent to 39 percent.
That may be true but, to state the obvious, the first black president wasn't on the ballot, so Perkins' comparison may have something of an apples to oranges quality to it.