If the Proposition 8 battle is replayed in 2010, demographic trends alone could eliminate the initiative's winning margin, according to an analysis of polling and census data.
Gay rights groups have already vowed a 2010 repeal fight against the initiative, which took away a right for same-sex couples to marry that had been granted in a California Supreme in May. Given that conventional wisdom holds that it is easier to get a no vote than a yes vote, a repeal campaign could have a harder mission than the unsuccessful No on 8 campaign did this year.
"We have not determined, with our allies, exactly when that will be," said Rick Jacobs, founder and director of the Courage Campaign, which has gathered over 300,000 names on an online petition calling for a repeal. "But we will be absolutely ready to put it on the ballot in 2010."
If the repeal side does get on the ballot, they'll be facing a very different electorate. According to the Field Poll, voters 65 and older made up 19 percent of the 13 million people who cast ballots in this election-about 2.5 million voters. According to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), six in 10 voted for Prop. 8. The measure won by 4.6 percentage points, or 591,644 total votes.
According to death rate data provided by the California Department of Public Health, over a third of those over 65 die each year. If you applied these deaths rates to voters in this age group, over two years, deaths could eliminate 1.5 million voters over 65–which would suggest 900,000 yes on 8 voters and only 600,000 no voters, for a net loss of 300,000 votes for the yes side. However, it's probably not quite this simple, according to PPIC demographer Hans Johnson, who noted that it was probably healthier older people with lots of years ahead of them who cast more of the ballots.
"If you're really sick, you probably didn't vote," Johnson said. "If you‘re in a nursing home or suffer from dementia, you probably didn't vote."
Overall, voters tend to have higher incomes and education than non-voters; both of these generally correspond with greater health and longer lifespans. But the PPIC and other groups have also found that people who voted yes on 8 tended to have lower education and income than other voters, and thus may have somewhat higher death rates.
Johnson noted several other factors that could play against a repeal campaign. For one thing, there is generally a higher bar of getting a yes vote on an initiative campaign. According to the PPIC study, more yes voters said Prop. 8 was "very important" to them, by a margin of 74 percent to 59 percent, which could make it hard to get the pro-same-sex marriage voters out in large numbers in a non-presidential election year. And then there is the growing role of Latino voters, who approved by the measure with 63 percent of their votes. But even when you take all of this into account, Johnson predicted a short life for Prop. 8.
"I don't know if I'd say two years," Johnson said. "When you look at the age structure, there is no doubt that sometime in the next 10 years, the votes of California will accept, in the majority, gay marriage."
Voters over 65 are not the whole story, of course. U.S. Census data shows there are about 1.1 million Californians currently aged 16 or 17 will have turned 18 by late 2010. Voters under 30 had the opposite profile of those over 65-that is, six in 10 voted against Prop. 8-and most people think these newly-eligible voters would be similar. While turnout among very young voters tends be both low and unpredictable, it appears that these new voters would cut into Prop. 8 margin by a few tens of thousands of votes.
"I think that it's true that the youngest demographic is the least supportive of traditional marriage," said Frank Schubert, who managed the Yes on 8 campaign. "There is not much debate about that. The rest of the demographics, once you get above 29, are pretty strong with us."
If they do have to re-fight the initiative in 2010 and if he's involved, Schubert said, he would counter with the message that voters have already decided this issue twice. He said he'd also come up with very carefully tailored messages to different demographics. Schubert characterized 2008 as the other side's best shot, due to the large turnout of younger voters.
"In terms of the marriage issue, they've never won at the ballot box," Schubert said. "They've never advance a ‘yes on marriage' campaign at the ballot box, which is a much tougher campaign. They really did have a lot going for them in 2008, and they couldn't get it done."
Jacobs, who was not directly involved in the no campaign and was frequently critical of it, said that the most important thing was how close the voting was.
"The yes side spent a fortune, the no side spent a fortune on a badly-run campaign," Jacobs said. "If we'd had good messaging, and a real grassroots organization the way Obama did, I think we would have already won. There is no question we will win [eventually]."
Some of the remaining vote gap could be cut into by trends within the 18-64 voting demographic. Voters over 50 and especially over 55 were more likely to vote yes on 8, and are also statistically more likely to die in the next two years.
For instance, voters over 55 gave 56 percent of their votes to the yes side, according to the PPIC. Yet about a quarter of those in the 55 to 64 age group in California die each year. This compares to only about two percent of those 20 to 24 years old, and a little over four percent of those 25 to 34. Extrapolating these numbers to the 29 percent of voters in the 55 to 64 age a group, according to Field, means that deaths within this group could cost the Yes on 8 side up to an additional 300,000 or so votes.
The death rates for older Californians may seem high, but they actually reflect that people are living longer. Death rates for those under 55 have been falling steadily for years, and rising for those over 55. This means that many of those who would have died younger are now doing so in slightly older age demographics, which are also constantly getting reinforcements from people who age out of younger demographic groups. And of course, there are large numbers of people over 65 who are in good health and who will be living–and voting–for many years to come.
Long term trends
Still, the long term trends are all pointing towards gay marriage. A 1996 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while a mere 27 percent supported it. In August, a Times-Mirror poll found Americans in a dead heat on gay marriage, at 47 percent. A majority, 58 percent, opposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.
These demographic numbers also appear to mirror a far simpler analysis-comparing Prop. 8 in 2008 to Prop. 22. The later, a non-constitutional measure to limit marriage to "one man and one woman," passed with 61.4 percent of the vote in March 2000, compared to Prop. 8's 52.3 percent. In other words, the anti-gay marriage side lost 9.1 points over a period of eight years and eight months. This loss of just over a point a year, extended between 2008 and 2010, would drive the anti-gay marriage side's percentage down to the brink of 50.
While many people in the African-American community have challenged the idea that there is a connection between gay rights and racial civil rights, there is an odd parallel that jumps out–that attitudes on interracial marriage have also generally changed at a rate of about a point per year.
According to the group Religious Tolerance, 90 percent of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage when it was first legalized by the California Supreme Court in 1948. Nineteen years later, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the practice, 72 percent of Americans still disapproved. The magical 50 percent threshold wasn't crossed until 1991-a change of 50 percentage points in 53 years. Coincidentally, people born in 1991 start voting next year.