Advocates trying to uphold Maryland's same-sex marriage law hope President Barack Obama's new stance will boost their efforts by firing up supporters and nudging black voters who traditionally have been resistant to the idea.
Opponents played down the significance of the president's position backing same-sex marriage, saying Thursday that Maryland voters are unlikely to be influenced on such a highly personal decision. But they also said the president's remarks could drive foes of gay marriage to the polls.
With heavily Democratic Maryland so evenly divided on the issue — a recent public opinion poll indicated that the state's voters were split 49 percent in favor to 47 percent against — groups on each side are looking for the slightest edge in an expected showdown in a November referendum.
Obama's words could affect ballot battles in other states, too. Voters are expected to decide same-sex marriage measures this fall in Maine, Minnesota and Washington. Despite growing public support for gay unions, opponents have won nearly every time the question was on the ballot. This week, North Carolina voters approved by a wide margin a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, becoming the 30th state to do so.
Immediately after the White House announced Wednesday that Obama would support same-sex marriage, gay advocacy groups put out congratulatory news releases. Social media networks lit up. At least one Maryland lawmaker used the news for a fresh fundraising plea.
It is unclear whether Obama will play any further role in the marriage debate in Maryland or other states. White House spokesman Jay Carney reminded reporters Thursday that the president has issued statements on state-level marriage initiatives: "I'm sure that continues to be the case," Carney said.
Obama had previously supported civil unions, a legal arrangement short of marriage that grants some rights to gay couples. For the past two years, he has said his position on same-sex marriage was "evolving" — and in a TV interview that aired Wednesday, he detailed his support for extending marriage rights.
"Same-sex couples should be able to get married," the president said.
Activists around the nation suggest they will treat Obama's endorsement with great care, at least until the impact on public opinion becomes clearer. Building on lessons learned from earlier defeats at the polls, those fighting to gain recognition for gay marriage say they are unlikely to feature his support in TV ads in Maine and Washington, the states where legislation to allow same-sex marriage is seen to have the best chance of passing in November.
Still, the way that Obama delivered his endorsement has sparked conversations, and gay-rights advocates say that's a big help.
"The more people talk about" the issue, "that helps us," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. However, "the best person to deliver this message is a Minnesotan who other Minnesotans identify with."
Maryland's General Assembly narrowly approved a measure this year that legalizes same-sex marriage. But the law does not take effect until January 2013 — a date chosen to give opponents time to put the issue before voters on the November ballot.
Six states and the District of Columbia now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Democratic strategists who back the gay-marriage law say Obama's stance could be helpful in several ways in Maryland. High on the list is a desire to draw support from the state's African-Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic. Polls show that blacks tend not to support same-sex marriage, and they make up about 30 percent of the population — the most of any state outside the Deep South.
"You cannot win this thing unless you are talking to African-American voters," said Amie Kershner, a Democratic political consultant with Maryland ties who is not working on any of the gay-marriage campaigns. "I think the conversation is happening in that community. The door was already cracked open. Now it is open a little wider."
Obama's poll numbers have remained extremely high in Maryland's black community, even as his approval rating has ebbed among other Democratic groups.
Kershner and other political analysts said the president's stance will create pressure in black households to talk through the issue and to specify why they agree or disagree with him. Such discussions, advocates say, tend to be helpful in part because of the voice given to younger family members, who are more likely to support gay issues.
But the president's position could backfire in Maryland by angering Obama opponents and giving the state's Republicans motivation to vote in November. Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which is leading the effort to repeal Maryland's law, said his cellphone has been "blowing up" with calls from angry voters.