Why Opposition to Gay Marriage Isn’t Swinging Minnesota Romney’s Way

A ballot initiative to define marriage as between a man and a woman has 52% popular support but that doesn't seem to be reason enough for the Republican to commit resources to the state

  • Share
  • Read Later
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

From left: Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney talks with former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty backstage before speaking at a campaign rally in Rochester, N.H., Jan. 8, 2012.

Why has Mitt Romney written off Minnesota? While Democratic candidates have gone nine-for-nine in the presidential races here since 1976, this year had seemed to present an opportunity for a GOP surge: a ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage in the state’s constitution. Poll numbers show the majority of Minnesota voters currently support the ban, with 52% of respondents in favor of defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, and 37% against it. With the conservative base mobilizing around the issue, shouldn’t Mitt Romney benefit from higher Republican voter turnout in this blue-leaning purple state come November?

There is no indication of that so far, if the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul in late August is a barometer.  The fair is a popular stop for politicians, and an electioneering battleground for issue campaigns, at the center of which is the hot-button marriage amendment. Along with the renowned assortment of deep fried foods served on sticks, also on sticks were orange paper fans urging sweaty fairgoers to “vote no” on Election Day. Green and white stickers supporting the amendment said, “Marriage: One Man, One Woman.”

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Romney, who happened to be in town for a pair of fundraisers when the fair opened on Aug. 23, skipped the conglomeration of thrill rides, animal contests and corn dogs in favor of a dinner that cost couples $50,000 each. “It’s a built-in retail opportunity to shake hands and kiss babies and all that stuff, and I was very surprised that he wasn’t there,” says Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. “But I think it speaks volumes to the fact that they know they can’t win in this state.”

Romney hasn’t even opened a campaign office in Minnesota, and with good reason: Minnesotans have given their delegates to Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1972. “It would be very difficult for Romney to hit a switch and get something going in Minnesota,” says Larry Jacobs, a professor of political studies at the University of Minnesota.

Even conservatives, like Annette Meeks, a former deputy to U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich., say confidence in Romney’s chances here has been low. “Everyone said the fundraising goal was too ambitious,” says Meeks, who attended Romney’s $2,500-a-head speech at the Lafayette Club in Minnetonka Beach. “The fear was we’ll never get Romney himself to come to the state.”

(MORE: Gay Activists at the DNC: Happy With Obama, Anxious About Romney)

He did come, and he collected at least $875,000 in the process.  But other than raising cash, Romney may have little reason to amp up efforts in Minnesota. Despite poll numbers indicating that the marriage amendment—and another amendment requiring voters to show IDs—might be headed for victory, political observers in Minnesota say a ballot question that resonates with conservatives will do little to bring Romney supporters out in droves. The state’s voter turnout is already legendary (it was 77.8% in 2008), which means that there are few non-committal voters left waiting to be inspired by the various campaigns.

“Amendment campaigns have negligible impact on turnout in presidential years in particular because Minnesota has the highest turnout,” says Martin, who organized John Kerry’s 2004 campaign in the state. “While it’s certainly going to galvanize people’s bases, you’re not going to see a huge blip in turnout, so it’s not going to be enough to swing the election one way or another for a party.”

And vice versa. Kate Brickman, press secretary for Minnesotans United for All Families, says national politics have little effect on the “vote no” campaign in the state. “To be honest, the debate here in Minnesota feels very non-partisan, or at least cuts across party lines,” said Brickman. “Things that happen with Obama or Romney don’t seem to translate into our action at all in any way.”

(MORE: The Battle Over Gay Marriage)

If anything, says Blois Olson, a Minnesota political analyst, there’s still time for opponents of the ban to change the direction of popular opinion. “The poll numbers are very unpredictable,” says Olson. “Minnesota is a classic passive-aggressive state. We don’t like to confront people, and because of that it’s harder to tell where the passion lies.” As Election Day approaches, “the aggressive side is likely to come out closer to the end of the race.”

With new poll numbers coming out late next week, Brickman says Minnesotans United is cautiously optimistic. “We feel really confident that momentum is definitely on our side,” she said.

The “vote no” campaign also has one distinct advantage—voters who skip the ballot question are essentially casting a “no” vote. So rather than the amendment bringing out more Romney voters, Romney would need to bring out more amendment voters. And that doesn’t seem likely, says Larry Jacobs.

“There could be some situations in which [the amendment] fails and the main [reason] is Romney doesn’t campaign,” says Jacobs. “Is the Romney campaign willing to put money into Minnesota? As far as I can tell the answer is no.”

MORE: The Mind of Mitt