Are Blacks Really To Blame For Proposition 8? Some gay rights supporters are angry at African-American voters for their support of California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. But a new study takes a closer look at voters who supported the provision and raises questions about whether the backlash directed at blacks is warranted.
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Are Blacks Really To Blame For Proposition 8?

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Are Blacks Really To Blame For Proposition 8?

Are Blacks Really To Blame For Proposition 8?

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Roland Burris has been sworn in as Illinois's new senator and will serve in the seat vacated by President-elect Obama. We'll hear what the Barbershop guys have to say about it, and they continue our conversation about President George W. Bush's legacy. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, Faith Matters. We've had several conversations on this program about Proposition 8, which passed this November in California banning same-sex marriage in that state. A new study examines the factors that led people to support the ballot initiative, and it questions the exit polls and the conventional wisdom that suggested African-Americans with the leading force in favor of the ban. I'm joined now by the lead author of that study, Patrick Egan. He's an assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University. He's with us from our New York bureau. And joining me here in our Washington, D.C., studio, religion writer Sarah Posner. She's the author of the book "God's Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters." Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. SARAH POSNER (Author, "God's Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters"): Thanks for having me.

Dr. PATRICK J. EGAN (Politics and Public Policy, New York University): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Hi. Now, Professor Egan, let's start with you. Your study found certain factors drove people to vote yes on Proposition 8. What were they? What are the most important factors determining whether or not people would support Proposition 8?

Dr. EGAN: Well, when you look at the kinds of voter characteristics that seem to move the most votes - and we assessed this with a post-election survey with the representative sample of California voters - what we found were that characteristics that hadn't gotten a lot of attention after Proposition 8 - characteristics like party identification, political ideology, religiosity and age - actually drove a lot more votes than race and ethnicity, which we believe got an outsized amount of attention in the wake of Proposition 8.

MARTIN: And by religiosity, what do you mean? You mean religious convictions and frequency of church attendance?

Dr. EGAN: That's right, yeah. It's kind of a state of - it's a term that we use in polling and survey research because we don't have good measures of the extent to which people are religious. And the best one that we can get in a short survey is just the frequency of attendance of religious services. That's right.

MARTIN: So, is - what you're saying is that the rate of worship supersedes race as a factor in whether or not people supported Proposition 8. And so, why...

Dr. EGAN: In terms of...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Dr. EGAN: Sorry. In terms of the number of votes that were changed by a factor, a religion was a much bigger factor than race, that's correct.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that people have this view that it's race? I know I'm asking you to speculate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But I'm curious what you think as a pollster, as a person who surveys opinion, because this is people's opinion now.

Dr. EGAN: Right. That's right. Well, I think there's two reasons. One is, is that, as I'm sure has been reported on your show, a figure from the exit poll conducted on Election Day in California found that 70 percent of African-Americans voted yes on Prop 8. In additional work in our study, we have lots of evidence indicating that that number was an overestimate, and that while African-Americans and Latinos voted for Prop 8 at higher rates than the rest of the population, it was nowhere near the gap that had been originally estimated. So, I think that was part of the attention, that people just saw this big gap and we're trying to make something of it. I think the second thing is that - and this is more speculation than from the survey data - but I think that it brings a lot of surprise to people to think that African-Americans and Latinos, who make up very important parts of the Democratic Party's coalition, would vote against an issue that is viewed as part of the Democratic Party's, you know, sort of issue base. And that's, you know, that's an interesting and perhaps counterintuitive phenomenon.

MARTIN: Sarah Posner, you've written extensively about the role of religion in shaping people's political views. So, do these findings make sense to you or surprising to you?

Ms. POSNER: They weren't surprising to me. What was surprising to me was the exit polls that the study debunks, because I thought that that was overstated and there were some reporting even before the election that because African-American voters would going to turnout on higher numbers to vote for Barack Obama, that therefore there would be a greater chance of Proposition 8 passing because of the increase black voter turnout, which, you know, was a myth, but it was a very recycled - frequently recycled myth.

MARTIN: So, the issue or the salient thing for African-Americans is not that they're Democrats; it's that they're religious. They tend to be more religious. Now, you've written extensively about the way religion shapes the abortion debate. Do gay marriage and religion - sorry, does the gay marriage and abortion debate share the same fault lines? Or is that different, too?

Ms. POSNER: It does share some of the same fault lines, although I think you will find people who are more moderate on gay marriage but still toe a very hard line on abortion. What you see in sort of young Evangelical - polling of young Evangelicals right now, for example, is that they're moderating their position a little bit on gay marriage, but they're actually becoming more conservative on abortion.

MARTIN: Which is a point to say that a lot of these issues are more complicated than a lot of people initially appear. People tend to want to lump - group people into one group, Evangelicals think this, black folks think that. But what I hear from both of you is that when you go deep into the subject, actually, there are complicating factors on all these issues. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the intersection of faith and politics with religion writer Sarah Posner and with Patrick Egan. He's a professor of politics and public policy. Professor, your study indicated that there's growing support for gay marriage, but not among all voting groups. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Dr. EGAN: Yeah, that's right. We were able to look survey data from 2000, when California actually had a very similar proposal on the ballot, same-sex marriage ban that passed by a much wider gap than it did in 2008. And by comparing survey data from eight years ago to now, we're able to get a sense of what kind of groups have moved in the direction of supporting marriage equality. And just about all groups have moved, with regard to party identification, religions, ages, with just a few holdouts. First is self-identified Republicans, who are just as opposed to the same-sex marriage now as they were eight years ago in California. The same is true of self-identified conservatives and, I think, perhaps most interesting, those born before World War II. So, we're looking at a generational cohort that despite all of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last eight years around gay and lesbian rights have not shifted in their opinion on same-sex marriage.

MARTIN: And what about race as a variable?

Dr. EGAN: On race, yes, we saw - we also see movements among all racial and ethnic groups toward marriage equality, you know, differing sizes and differing shifts, but certainly all moving in the direction of being more accepting of the idea of same-sex marriage.

MARTIN: Sarah, you recently reported on the Evangelical center. What is that exactly, and how big is it?

Ms. POSNER: It's not clear how big it is in terms of the - how many followers the leaders who are emerging in this movement have. But there's a group of Evangelical academics and mega-church pastors who have tried to seize the mantle of being the Evangelical center, that they're more moderate on gay-rights issues - although they certainly don't go as far as endorsing gay marriage - and that they want to talk about abortion reduction rather than talking about criminalizing abortion, even though I think that most of them remain committed to having abortion be illegal. And so, there's some polling data that shows that white Evangelicals, at least, that about 40 percent of them or so are centrist or moderate. It's not clear that all of them are followers of these leaders who are emerging to claim that name of this movement being the Evangelical center. But I think among younger Evangelicals, there are small shifts, particularly on civil unions and gay marriage. But like I said before, they remain very conservative on abortion.

MARTIN: Professor Egan, do you think the emergence of this Evangelical center could affect policy on issues like gay marriage? And what do you make of Sarah's argument that, in fact, there is a divergence on tolerance for gay marriage or same-sex marriage or marriage equality and abortion? There's actually divergence on issues there. Even if there's a movement on one, there is not on the other. What do you...

Dr. EGAN: Yeah. I...

MARTIN: Say to both those questions?

Dr. EGAN: Sure. Survey data suggest that Sarah's absolutely right. If you look at trends in public opinion on abortion over the last 30 years, they're essentially flat. You do not see Americans moving in one direction on another, and it's almost as if different groups are Americans have pretty much made up their minds. That is precisely not the case with any issue regarding gay and lesbian rights on any policy question, whether it's marriage, adoption, discrimination, legislation. Americans have moved substantially and dramatically in the direction of supporting gay and lesbian rights. And you're seeing that in microcosm among those who are young and identify as Evangelical, in that I think abortion is still going to be a resonant issue for those voters, but a substantial slice of those people are probably going to become more moderate and are becoming more moderate on gay rights.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask each of you about the fact that President-elect Obama has - is clearly making efforts to reach out to Evangelicals of - many people made note of his decision to select Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, and he's made many efforts throughout the course of the campaign and made it very clearly that that's important to him. But what effect, if any, do you think these efforts could have on the political affiliations of Evangelicals? Because one of the things I learn I think from Professor Egan's report or - is that - is many sort of religious views are more important to many voters than their political affiliations. So, Sarah, I wanted to ask you first and then Professor Egan, do you think that these efforts - is political affiliation movable for Evangelicals, particularly white Evangelicals, I would think?

Ms. POSNER: I don't know that their political affiliation is movable to the Democratic Party, to a commitment to the Democratic Party. I think their affiliation has been movable from being Republican to being independent, in that for some of them, a very small, you know, maybe five percent of white Evangelicals - the numbers are much larger for black and Latino Evangelicals - but five percent of white Evangelicals moved and voted for Barack Obama. But nonetheless, I don't think that this is a hardened shift in political affiliation. I think what you will see is that they're going to be politically independent from election to election.

MARTIN: Professor Egan, what's your take on this?

Dr. EGAN: I guess I have both a short-term and a long-term take. The - it's very, very hard to move anybodies long-term party identification or affiliation. We know that from lots of survey data. However, if there is one group of people that is up for grabs at any given time, it is people who are just entering the political system, just entering the electorate. And so, to the extent that voters aged 18 to 25 are encountering the political system for the first time and they like Barack Obama, it's possible that some of those voters' long-term party affiliation can shift. In the short-term, the extent to which Obama is able to move away from a focus on abortion, gay rights, et cetera, those voters may be more open to supporting him and other Democrats in elections to come.

MARTIN: And finally, Professor Egan, I wanted to ask about this study, and I know you're focused on California, California voters and looking at the data there, but do you think you can extrapolate that data nationally? Do you think what you found in California is applicable to the rest of the country? Because I think that also one of the things that led to the shock that many people had and the result is that they have a certain view of California as being more left of center, more tolerant than other parts of the country, and so I think for some people it was a shock. So, what do you think?

Dr. EGAN: I think that's right. I mean, California is more liberal on all kinds of social issues, including gay rights, than most of the country. And I think what this result showed is that for gay-rights advocates, it's still a little bit - they're still a little short of the finish line. But when you, again, when you look at the shift in public opinion among Californians, that reflects and echoes what we see nationally. It's just that Californians are a little bit, what we might say, ahead of the game, and so, it's possible that, you know, four or eight years from now, a similar ban would not pass in California, and we might be saying the same thing about other states 20 or 30 years from now.

MARTIN: And Sarah, finally, and it's always unfair to ask a journalist to speculate, but that - a lot of voters have such high expectations of President-elect Obama. And given the sort of difficult circumstances that he finds himself in the economy and so forth, and some of the choices he's making about reaching to these groups, I wonder, does he have as much - is there as much potential of his alienating his liberal and progressive voters or supporters as there is of his attracting those who are more conservative?

Ms. POSNER: Well, I think that's right, I think the Rick Warren pick demonstrated that. You know, by trying to demonstrate the Evangelicals that he was friendly to them, he made a lot of his base support feel alienated by that. I think he does run that risk, and I think that he - it's very Obama-esque to bring everybody into the conversation, and I think it remains to be seen how he's going to do that and satisfy everybody.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of conversations, thank you for this one. Sarah Posner is author of the new book, "God's Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters." She was here with me in the Washington, D.C., studio. And Patrick Egan is an assistant professor of politics and policy at New York University. He joined us from our New York bureau. I think you both so much and Happy New Year.

Ms. POSNER: Thanks, Michel.

Dr. EGAN: Right back to you.

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