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Same-sex decision may signal significant shift in Obama's strategy, analysts say

By Ashley Killough, CNN
updated 10:53 PM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ron Brownstein: Obama could see big losses among Reagan Democrats
  • The initial reaction in the African-American community is mixed, a pastor says
  • Obama's announcement gives an opening for Romney, a conservative leader says
  • Jennifer Pizer: It's "unlikely to still be much on voters' minds six months from now."

(CNN) -- In the political fallout of President Barack Obama's shift to support same-sex marriage, analysts say the move may signal a remarkable change in his campaign's re-election strategy, one that no longer courts the moderate part of his Democratic base.

The president could see his steepest loss of support with more conservative Democrats or the so-called Reagan Democrats — those who are typically white, older and living in rural areas, said Ron Brownstein, CNN contributor and the National Journal's editorial director.

Many of them also fall into key swing states, like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Indiana.

"This is an acknowledgment that those voters are largely gone, and the president and the Democrats have to respond to a different coalition: Younger voters. More socially liberal. White collar voters," Brownstein said. "This is a reflection of his understanding that that is now the coalition that is going to elect him and that he needs to respond to."

Indeed, recent congressional shifts show this sector of the party to be thinning out. Also known as Blue Dog Democrats, the group's coalition dramatically lost numbers in Congress over the years.

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Prior to 2010, there were 54 members in the House Blue Dog caucus. By the end of 2011, there were 25. Two more lost primary battles in Pennsylvania last month, raising questions as to whether the more moderate Democrats will be forced to swing further to the left this cycle.

While Republican and Democratic lawmakers unleashed a flurry of statements following the president's comments Wednesday, many members of the Blue Dog Coalition remained relatively quiet.

Another group of concern for Obama, political observers say, may be African-American evangelicals, a section within the base that traditionally comes down socially conservative on same-sex relationships. The group played a big role this week in voting for the North Carolina ballot initiative that places a constitutional ban on same-gender marriage.

Carlton Pearson, an African-American pastor from Chicago and widely known supporter of LGBT rights, said he received a wave of phone calls and texts from pastors Wednesday after the president's interview, several of whom had mixed reactions to the news.

"Many don't support marriage, but they support the president," Pearson said Wednesday on CNN. "Others support both, because they realize that their congregations are filled with gender loving people and their staffs."

Person added the community is "conflicted," not necessarily because of Biblical reasons, but because of potential economic liabilities.

"A lot of preachers actually don't have a theological issue," he said. "It's a business decision. They can't afford to lose their parishioners and their parsonages and salaries. They stay quiet."

In the end, however, experts doubt this will become a big wedge issue for Obama and the black community, which turned out in droves for the then-Illinois senator in 2008.

"I think the African American community, even those who disagree with him, will still be there," said Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and senior adviser for a pro-Obama super PAC.

Most political observers argue Obama's clarified stance will undoubtedly help shore up a major part of his liberal base that has largely felt alienated by his murky language on the issue over the years.

Prior to his Wednesday announcement, Obama's official position was that he was "evolving" on the issue, having once opposed it. Given the even split among Americans on the topic, political strategists say the president had no choice but to walk a fine line.

Marriage-equality activists say they hope the president's words will have a trailblazing effect, but recognize he's still limited — both politically and legally — in making a sizable impact on the movement.

"I don't expect him to be out there campaigning on this every day," Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said on CNN. "But I think the president's words will reverberate across kitchen tables across the country, in the hearts and minds of people who are wrestling with this."

Obama's changed position may affect not only his own campaign, but his opponent's as well. Some Republicans argue it could be a political gift for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has struggled throughout the campaign to animate his conservative base, as his primary opponents consistently showered him with criticism of being too moderate.

The president's announcement gave Romney a chance to forcefully reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage, even articulating a stance further to the right of former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

"My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that's my own preference," he told reporters in Oklahoma. "I know other people have differing views."

In an interview earlier in the day, he said he supports domestic partnership benefits and hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples. However, in the past, Romney has expressed support for a federal amendment banning gay marriage and has said that he, unlike Obama, would stage a legal fight for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council, said this issue could be a key benchmark in Romney's quest to convince those on the far-right of his conservative credentials.

"The president, I think, has handed to Mitt Romney the one missing piece in his campaign, and that is the intensity and motivation that Mitt Romney needs among social conservatives to win this election," Perkins said on CNN. "And I think this could be the piece."

Whether Obama will be damaged by accusations of "flip-flopping" on the issue remains to be seen.

"It's going to be really interesting to see how this plays out," said Frank Bruni, a consumer activist and the first openly gay New York Times' op-ed columnist. "Does it make Barack Obama a flip-flopper? A little bit of one. But you show me a politician that's not a flip-flopper."

He added: "I don't find the flip-flop stuff when we direct it at Mitt Romney to be the most compelling line of argument because I think politics is an arena of much flip-flopping."

However, recent polling shows same-sex marriage to be low on voters' minds. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in April, only 28% of voters described it as a "very important issue" this election year.

Jennifer Pizer, legal director at The Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation, law and public policy at UCLA, said she would be surprised if the issue comes into play this fall, despite its appearance on states' ballots and the president's changed position.

"I suspect the issue might have played some role in North Carolina, which will be contested," she told CNN in an e-mail. "But with the marriage vote having happened just now, it seems unlikely to still be much on voters' minds six months from now."

While Obama's comments may fuel ongoing discussion among pundits and politicos, she said, she doubts voters will view the issue as a highly important one this fall.

"The overwhelming majority of Americans already enjoy the right to marry the person they wish to marry, and are not directly affected by laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying," she said. "Those laws just don't affect their families, let alone their jobs, their children's schools, or whether they are able to take loved ones to the doctor."

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