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Posted at 03:20 PM ET, 05/24/2012

Explaining the sudden shift on gay marriage among African Americans

The big polling news today is that in the wake of President Obama’s “evolution” on marriage equality, African American voters have flipped from opposition to support — to such an extent that changes among black voters have been enough to make it likely that the Maryland ballot measure to support same-sex marriage, that seemed destined to fail, is now showing a solid lead, at least in one poll (for similar national marriage polling, see here).

How does this shift, which Adam Serwer calls, “almost incredible,” work?

The key is something that political junkies often find difficult to believe: most people don’t really care very much either way about most political issues, including such hot-button issues as marriage, or abortion, or gun control, or any of the other things that many activists feel so passionately about.

That’s why the way that Ta-Nehisi Coates frames it isn’t quite right. He says,“I was skeptical that Obama would actually influence black opinions. I'm not sure he has. But I can't rule it out. It's clear that the trend was toward support. Maybe Obama gave it the final push.”

I’d put it this way: Most of us have no strong opinions about many issues. If someone interrupts us with a phone call and asks about one of those issues, we’ll try to figure out what our “team” says about it — in which “team” is simply some group we belong to that has high salience to us with respect to politics or, better, to the question being asked. In doing so, we’re apt to remember the last high-profile position taken we’ve heard.

Just to be clear — I don’t mean to knock anyone when I say they haven’t thought much about this issue or other issues. That’s just how it is. We’re busy people; we have jobs, and kids to drop off at activities, and groceries to buy and people to deal with. Some of us are intensely interested in politics and have passionate beliefs on many issues, and many of us have one or two issues we care about intensely because they affect us personally in very obvious ways. But for most of us, on most issues, it’s just background noise that at best we’ll tune in occasionally.

So it’s not exactly that Obama influenced black opinions, would be my guess. It’s that African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue — but do consider themselves on Team Democrat — are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team. Or, perhaps, that those who think of themselves (implicitly or explicitly) as Team Black now have a revised view of what that team’s position is. Or, perhaps, people who are on Team Church and Team Democrat now realize that those two are in conflict and they have to choose, while before they were getting only one signal. Remember, we’re only talking about one in five or so flipping in order to get these results; I don’t know for sure that they are among the least interested in the issue, but I’m guessing that’s the case.

The point is that none of these possibilities are really about anyone’s opinions, if by that we mean actually assessing the policy itself and changing what one believes. I suspect very few people have done that in the last two weeks. Mostly, what’s happening, if I’m right about this, is people who don’t care about the issue very much are just re-aligning themselves with where they believe their group belongs. And if so, the reason that it may have (apparently) had such a strong effect so quickly could be because Obama may not be able to change anyone’s mind on anything they care about, but he certainly can and did cause a significant and immediate shift in the perceived standard position for multiple groups. 

By  |  03:20 PM ET, 05/24/2012

 
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