By Vidisha Mishra*
On June 26, 2015, in a historic 5-4 Judgement in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court effectively settled one of the major civil rights issues in the country. Same-sex couples now have the constitutional right to marry. Although the issue may be have been settled legally, it remains politically divisive. Since the ruling, reactions of the 2016 Presidential candidates (and assumed candidates) have been deeply polarised, indicating the potential of same-sex marriage to become a determining factor in the run up to 2016.
While the reactions from Democratic candidates indicated univocal support for the judgement, the Republican response showed variation, with some expressing stronger objections than others. Leading the Democrats, President Barack Obama, whose personal views on same sex marriage have shifted over the years, and has gone through a self-admitted “struggle”, stated that the Supreme Court ruling was a victory that would strengthen all communities in the American Union. The President’s official position on the issue has witnessed well- documented shifts from being pro same-sex marriages in 1996 to being against it in 2008.
Similarly, leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s personal views on same-sex marriage have evolved over the years. Clinton tweeted in strong support of LGBT Americans and advocates of equal rights. In 2008, Clinton had only supported civil unions for same-sex couples. Clinton’s closest competition in the Primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has long been a vocal proponent of gay rights, also hailed the Supreme Court decision as “equal justice under law”. Other Presidential hopefuls like Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee also reacted positively.
On the other hand, even though all the GOP candidates showed disappointment over the ruling, some like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — issued strongly worded statements, urging conservatives to fight against the legislation that they found to be at odds with religious liberty. However, others, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, issued more moderate statements.
Republican candidates, who were quick to register their disapproval of the court’s 5-4 ruling, now find themselves in the tough situation of assuaging their conservative voter base while at the same time acknowledging that the next President will be ineffectual in reversing the judgement in any manner. This may explain why some prominent GOP candidates like Bush and Rubio chose to adopt relatively muted reactions in comparison. While they both established that the court had overstepped its boundaries and the final decision on same-sex marriage should have been left to respective states, they upheld the law of the land and spoke against discrimination.
Moreover, the ruling follows an unparalleled shift in the American public opinion. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57% to 35% margin. But, data published days before the judgement in June 2015 demonstrated that support for same-sex marriage has increased dramatically in the last few years. Today, 39% of Americans oppose same-sex marriage while a majority of them (57%) support it. Most significantly, the data highlights that almost 3 in 4 people aged 18-35 support same-sex marriage, regardless of party affiliations.
Given the changing public and political atmosphere in favour of same-sex marriage, Republican candidates are likely to find themselves grappling with their approach to the Supreme Court ruling as well as to the issue of equal rights at large. The challenge in the Primaries and more explicitly in the 2016 Presidential face-off would be to balance the expectations of their core conservative base without estranging the general voters, many of them young millennials, who largely support equal rights.
However, the Supreme Court ruling could also help the GOP. The judgement has left the older, conservative audiences feeling defensive. Therefore, the ruling could serve as the key consolidating issue that candidates can rally around. The subsequent perception of threat to religious liberty and family values may even help bolster fund-raising campaigns for GOP candidates who are vocally critical of the ruling.
Additionally, the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling was accompanied by the judgement upholding Obamacare. This has resulted in strengthening calls amongst the Republicans against ‘judicial activism’. It is likely that as a result of these judgements, the Supreme Court itself will be in focus during the 2016 elections. After the Obamacare ruling, Sen. Ted Cruz, angrily noted that, “a handful of unelected judges had re-written the text to impose failed laws on Americans”. Republican GOP hopeful Carly Fiorina, said of the same-sex marriage ruling that it is, “only the latest example of an activist Court”. The Republican discontentment with the bench could be a recurring theme. Growing frustration with the court may encourage conservatives to support presidential candidates who commit to place strong conservatives on the bench.
Since Hillary Clinton’s nomination and her subsequent campaigns, it has been clear that gender issues will be playing a more significant role in the 2016 Presidential run than ever before. The SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage has only exacerbated that possibility, with LGBT rights thrust to the centre of the debate. The ruling has not only divided candidates along partisan lines, but has also generated different reactions within parties. It may not be a determining issue for Democratic candidates in the Presidential Primaries in 2014. But it remains to be seen how the Democrats leverage the ruling in 2016. Further, it remains to be seen how the Republican candidates balance their core conservative vote bank as well as a rapidly changing political landscape.
*Vidisha Mishra is Research Assistant at ORF