Axelrod essentially blamed "the black church," singling out the sentiments of a unique voting bloc -- even as it was just one of many groups that opposed gay marriage by a significant margin. It echoes the hand-wringing among misinformed pundits who posited that Obama might lose black voters in 2012 when he finally made his true feelings known. That didn't happen.
Axelrod writes that he counseled Obama to change/hide/lie about his position as he ran for higher office, because "opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church,a strategy that Obama "grudgingly had to accept."
Where did cross-generational white and Hispanic opposition fit into the equation? Surely, even as Obama and his strategists were focused on the support of black church-goers particularly in the South, they were also focused on keeping Obama, the first black person with a credible shot at the White House, well within the country's mainstream of white voters.
In 2008, Obama's opponents took the same stance on same-sex marriage because they were going for voters with very similar views. Just four years earlier, the Democratic party platform said the issue should be left to the states -- not exactly a robust defense of gay marriage.
(That same year, Al Sharpton, the most famous black preacher in America, campaigned for the White House arguing that gays and lesbians had a constitutional right to marry).
The 2008 primary battle found Hillary Clinton needing socially conservative/moderate white Democrats in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and Obama needing black voters in South Carolina and Mississippi. And black church-goers were hardly that different from the average white voter that Clinton was courting in such states.
Let's take a look at a few charts.
Black and white views on same-sex marriage were remarkably similar in 2000, according to Pew data. There was a 15-point split in 2008, but majorities of both races were still against same-sex marriage. Roughly 26 percent of blacks supported same-sex marriage and 41 percent of whites.
Obama certainly needed black voters more -- both in the primary and general elections -- which explains Axelrod's focus. But the fact that 59 percent of white voters were against same sex marriage was also a motivating factor, for not only Obama's stance but Clinton's as well. If black support had been closer to white support, would Obama have supported same sex marriage in 2008? Probably not -- at least if Clinton is any indication. (Indeed, very few Democrats publicly supported gay marriage in 2008, not just ones who conceivably relied on black church-goers.)
As for church-goers, white evangelicals remain the most steadfast opponents, and it wasn't until 2011 that a majority of white church-goers began to favor same sex marriage.
The majority of moderate voters also opposed same-sex marriage:
Axelrod isn't wrong about where church black church-goers were on gay marriage in 2008. But he is only telling half of a much more complex story of a continuing evolution on gay marriage among all groups.
Obama took the easy route on gay marriage just like Clinton because a wide swath of black and white voters stood in opposition to it. They both told the majority of voters what they wanted to hear -- until they had proof that they were ready to hear something different.