North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, banning same-sex marriage and (apparently) banning same-sex civil unions, by a 61%-39% margin. If you look at the vote totals by county, you can easily see why Barack Obama says that he continues to oppose same-sex marriage but has also said that his position on the issue is “evolving.”
Same-sex marriage had majority support—majorities voted against Amendment One--in seven of North Carolina’s 100 counties. They were Orange County (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina), where 79% voted no; Durham County (Duke University), 70%, Wake County (Raleigh, state capital, North Carolina State University), 57%; Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), 54%; Chatham County (adjacent to the first three counties listed above), 51%; Buncombe County (Asheville), 51%; and Watauga County (Appalachian State University), 51%. In addition, the same-sex marriage position came very close to prevailing in Guilford County (Greensboro, High Point), 49.97%; New Hanover County (Wilmington), 49.6%; Dare County (Outer Banks), 48%; and Forsyth County (Winston-Salem), 47%. In other words, voters in the central counties of the state’s big metropolitan areas and in counties dominated by university towns on balance favored same-sex marriage. These 11 counties account for 42% of the votes cast statewide. Overall 56% for same-sex marriage. The other 89 counties, which cast 58% of the votes, voted 73% against same-sex marriage.
As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I’m sorry to see these results, but not hugely surprised. The 2008 exit poll showed that 44% of North Carolina voters are white evangelical Protestants and 23% are blacks. Both groups oppose same-sex marriage by wide margins. Obama doesn’t need to worry about white evangelicals; very few will support him in any case. But he definitely needs not only high percentages but high turnout among black voters. For him to come out in favor of same-sex marriage will undoubtedly antagonize or puzzle many black voters and is likely to be denounced by many black preachers. To get an idea of where black voters in North Carolina stand on the issue, I’m setting out the vote against same-sex marriage in the counties with the highest black percentages in the 2010 Census, together with the popular vote margin for Obama in 2008.
County % yes Amendment 1 % black Obama margin
Bertie 73 62 2,989
Hertford 70 60 4,424
Northampton 63 58 3,232
Edgecombe 70 57 8,958
Halifax 68 53 7,086
Warren 62 52 4,023
Washington 64 50 1,078
Anson 70 48 2,249
Martin 71 43 582
Lenoir 72 40 -23
Now these are all small rural/small town counties. It’s likely that higher percentages of urban blacks voted against Amendment 1. Durham County’s population is 37% black and it voted 70% for same-sex marriage. My guess is that a higher percentage of black voters in North Carolina voted for same-sex marriage than the 30% of black voters who did so in California in the 2008 referendum on Proposition 8. If so, that would be in line with the trend toward greater support for same-sex marriage that we’ve seen nationally in the last four years.
Even so, the danger to Obama is clear. He carried the 10 counties in the table above by 34,958 votes. His statewide margin in North Carolina was 14,177. He can’t afford to antagonize or dampen the enthusiasm of these voters. And he can’t afford to antagonize or dampen the enthusiasm of the 39% of North Carolina voters who supported same-sex marriage. So he hopes to keep the former happy by staying officially opposed to same-sex marriage while hinting to the latter that he’s “evolving” and will join them in supporting same-sex marriage after he wins reelection. It’s a tricky game—tricky enough, perhaps, for press secretary Jay Carney to cancel today’s White House press briefing. On this issue Obama is in the position of the oldtime politician who said, “Some of my friends are for the bill, and some of my friends are against the bill, and I’m always with my friends.”
UPDATE: Obama has decided which group of friends he is with on this issue by telling ABC News that he now supports same-sex marriage. He'll get a lot of press coverage for this, and I think it will work to his advantage among young voters many of whom have been disenchanted with him and who tend to support same-sex marriage by large margins. But it could also hurt him with some black voters who continue to oppose same-sex marriage.
Take a look at the 10 counties in the table above. In 2008 voter turnout was up between 16% and 31% in these counties, even though only one was gaining significant popopulation and several were losing population. Obama's popular vote margin in these 10 counties was 34,958 votes. Four years before John Kerry's popular vote margin in those counties was 13,780. If Obama had won these counties by the same number of votes as Kerry, he would not have carried North Caroline's 15 electoral votes.
These numbers are eevidence of the Obama campaign's hard work and shrewd tactics--and also of the spontaneous enthusiasm of many blacks who had not voted in the past for his candidacy. Such numbers in dozens of counties were essential to his carrying North Carolina and very helpful to his carrying Virginia. His support of same-sex marriage will probably make it harder for him to duplicate his 2008 performance among this demographic group.