F.A.Q.: Which campaign wants to have an election about gay rights?

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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about same-sex marriage politics.

Josh: Assuming Joe Biden was not in fact part of the world's most pointless conspiracy, and Barack Obama was in fact pushed by his gun-jumping vice president to announce his position on same-sex marriage, is it fair to say the campaign hasn't quite figured out yet what it's going to do for an encore?

At the moment they just get to sit back and watch Mitt Romney dealing with the fallout of Jason Horowitz's story about his prep-school days. But what will they, and for that matter the Romney campaign, do next?

Steve: I'm starting to think the answer to that might be: Nothing. The Romney response is not what it would have been for a Republican nominee a few years ago, when this sort of thing would have triggered ... well, what Bush did in 2004. It really feels like his campaign sees this as a huge opening, but that they understand there are real risks for them if they make opposition to gay marriage a centerpiece issue.

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That doesn't mean the right is laying down on this, obviously, but when you get beyond the Tony Perkins types, it seems there's a recognition at some level among Republicans where the long-term trends are going. It's becoming an issue where Republican candidates will still have to go far to the right to win primaries, but that they'll downplay and keep in the background once they get to the fall. I mean, a clear majority of independents (and an overwhelming majority of Democrats) now favor same-sex marriage, and the pace of change is so fast that six months from now—on Election Day—the margins could be even bigger, especially if Obama's announcement triggers others to speak out.

Josh: What about the idea that what the polls say and what the voters do on this issue are two very different things? Is that over now?

Steve: I'm sure we'll hear plenty of that, sort of like with the supposed Bradley Effect and Obama in '08, and if Obama ends up losing, maybe there'll be some impulse to blame this. What will really change it is when states start voting against bans like the one that passed in North Carolina yesterday (or start voting to legalize it). I keep hearing that 32 (or 33?) state statistic, how every state that's had the chance has been against it.

But like I said, the pace of change on this is really quick. How many of those referendums to ban gay marriage were from two, four, six or eight years ago? When it comes to this issue, that's ancient history. Maine is a good example. In '09, voters outlawed it. But now, just three years later, proponents want it on the ballot again; they're confident it will pass. If it gets on the ballot in N.J. (Christie's proposal), I bet it will pass. Once that starts happening, then we'll stop hearing about the silent majority being against it.

Josh: Does it become a broader character issue now? Could this now become the sort of thing people vote on because of what the candidates' positions seem to say about them, even if same-sex marriage wasn't a particularly big issue for them before?

Steve: Yeah. I don't think you can really quantify it, but my sense is that public opinion on this issue is really mushy in the middle. I mean, there are the hardcore opponents, the ones who are not only against gay marriage but who vote on it. This is not a small bloc, but I think they're basically all functionally Republicans. Then there are the supporters. A relatively small group of them are passionately for it, I think, while most have simply evolved, see it as no big deal anymore, but are preoccupied with other issues.

That leaves one other group: Those who still say they're against it, but who also don't care that much about it—the ones who say they're all for equal rights, are fine with civil unions, don't have anything against gay people, etc., but who just still think the idea of gay marriage is kind of out there. My hunch is that a lot of them would respond negatively to a presidential campaign that made fighting gay marriage a central issue—that they'd see a meanness in the tone of it. And that carries over to the anecdote Jason unearthed. If it becomes a part of the Romney narrative, it will make even a lot of people who say they're not for gay marriage feel a little less comfortable with him.

Josh: So now that the awkward, mutually agreed quiet on this issue has been forever shattered (Biden!), which campaign has a greater interest in talking about gay marriage between now and November? 

Steve: Good question. I doubt either one of them will push it that hard. To the extent Obama had any political incentive to do this, it had to do with fund-raising, so he doesn't have to do anything else now to reap whatever benefit he's going to reap on that end. That he went out of his way to say states should be able to set their own laws suggests he doesn't want to be talking about this much in the fall. But as I said before, it also seems that Romney wants to keep this quiet, and be able to keep saying he's for traditional marriage but doesn't want to discriminate against anyone, etc. The more specific the discussion gets, the harder it becomes for him to square his current positions with a sentiment like that.

Josh: So ... the election's still going to be about the economy, like it was going to be all along?

Steve: That's my bet.