Blog To End AIDS: Split results add to confusion for many gay voters torn between Obama, Clinton

Friday, January 11, 2008

Split results add to confusion for many gay voters torn between Obama, Clinton

Gay voters in Iowa and New Hampshire want their next president to bring change, but cannot agree who’s best for the job. Beth Barnhill, a 52-year-old lesbian living in Des Moines, said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is best positioned to transform the nation. “I think we’re desperately in need of change,” she said. “Dramatic change.” But Mark Anthony Dingbaum, a 22-year-old gay man living in Iowa City, said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) could better enact the changes that Democratic voters want. “I realize Washington is not going to change overnight and I can’t imagine supporting a candidate who doesn’t know the terrain and how to navigate that,” he said. “So, for me, Hillary was the clear choice.” Such divisions echo the results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Obama won the Jan. 3 caucuses, taking 37.6 percent of the Democratic vote. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina took 29.8 percent of the vote there, while Clinton took 29.5 percent. On Tuesday, Clinton won the nation’s first primary, taking 39 percent of the Democratic votes cast in New Hampshire. In that race, Obama took 37 percent of the vote and Edwards took 17 percent. Peter Rosenstein, a Washington political activist who is on Clinton’s gay steering committee, said the turnaround shows voters are prioritizing substance over style. “I think that Barack Obama’s message — he is a beautiful speaker, he is a charismatic speaker, and no one can take that from him — but by the third or fourth time you’ve heard that speech, you think to yourself, ‘Alright, what’s behind it?’” Rosenstein said. “I think Hillary managed in New Hampshire to pierce that speech.” Dingbaum agreed. He said Obama’s supporters, when challenged, were unable to explain to him why they prefer the younger senator. “A number of people I talked to about Obama couldn’t answer questions about his policies, his experience, his plans for the future,” he said. “They could only talk about hope.” But Jim Pickett, a longtime Obama supporter and advocacy director at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said there’s much more to Obama and his campaign. “I don’t buy the argument that Obama is simply style, as if he’s pretty window dressing who happens to give a good speech,” he said. “I reject the notion, outright, that Sen. Obama has only style and nothing beneath that. That’s not true.” ‘Virtual tie’ In a race that remains neck-and-neck between Obama and Clinton, voters beyond Iowa and New Hampshire will decide the Democratic outcome. Dan Pinello, a gay City University of New York government professor, said the New Hampshire vote was too close to give either candidate a clear advantage. “There was only two or three points difference,” he said. “So you’re looking, as a practical matter, at a virtual tie in terms of what Clinton and Obama got there.” Pinello said a frontrunner should emerge after Feb. 5, when California, New York and 20 other states hold their Democratic primary or caucus. “That’s going to be half of the nation, more or less, having a national primary,” he said. “It’s very likely that come Feb. 6, the Democratic nominee will be clear.” Other impending votes include the Nevada caucus on Jan. 19 and the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, but Pinello said those samplings are relatively inconsequential. “South Carolina is only interesting in the sense that it could gave an indication of what might happen in the South,” he said. “And Nevada is not indicative of anything, really. Who cares what way Las Vegas goes?” Pinello said the South Carolina and Nevada votes likely would serve only to confirm that Edwards should exit the race. “Clearly, the Democratic race is between Clinton and Obama,” he said. “You cannot come in second or third in two races and make any legitimate claim that you still have a shot at the nomination.” ‘A great boost’ Even as Edwards struggled to remain viable, Clinton and Obama were picking up momentum. On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain won handily in New Hampshire over the favored Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took Iowa by a large margin over the much better funded Romney. Many experts view Michigan as Romney’s last stand, though he has vowed to remain in the race. Barnhill said the Iowa victory proved that Obama can woo independent and conservative voters, something that will serve him well on Feb. 5. “I think this was a great boost for him,” she said. “That what’s widely regarded as a rather conservative and mostly white state — that this state supported Obama would be, I hope, good news for him going forward.” Rosenstein said Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, will benefit from the “shot in the arm” it got in New Hampshire. “It was clearly one of the most dramatic turnarounds in U.S. politics,” he said. “I think it’s a validation of Hillary trying to run on the issues.” Some voters, however, said Clinton wasn’t talking about the issues in ways they wanted to hear. Shannon McMurrin, a 24-year-old bisexual woman living with her lesbian partner in Waterloo, Iowa, said she caucused for Obama over Clinton in part because he wants to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. “Obama is very publicly in support of us,” she said. “He’s all for repealing DOMA and kind of leaving it to the states but opening it up to civil marriage, or civil unions, or whatever we can get.” But Rosenstein said Clinton, who supports repealing one part of the act, has a more pragmatic approach that hobbles efforts to constitutionally define marriage. “The reality is that we used DOMA to stop the momentum on a constitutional amendment,” he said. “It was used to say, ‘You don’t need that. The federal government already has DOMA.’” McMurrin noted that she only backed Obama after it became apparent that her preferred candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), was not viable. “He was the only candidate from the very beginning that said he was for civil marriage,” she said. “And that means a lot to me.” Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who did not actively campaign in Iowa, also backs marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. Dingbaum, a marriage equality advocate who caucused for Clinton, said he also would have preferred to support a candidate who matched his stance. “Unfortunately, unless you’re going to caucus for Kucinich, it doesn’t look like you have an option with marriage equality,” he said. “And I think it’s interesting that more people didn’t stand up for Kucinich, because if you review his record, where he stands on the issues, he is that candidate. He’s the one who’s ready for change. But electability is an issue.” McMurrin said she did not consider Edwards an option during the Jan. 3 caucusing. “Edwards isn’t comfortable with us, so we’re not really comfortable with him,” she said. “We give him credit for trying, but he’s not there yet.” In a book published earlier this year, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum wrote that Edwards once answered a question about gay rights by saying he was “not comfortable around those people.” Edwards’ campaign has called the passage dishonest and inaccurate. Activists who strove to increase the turnout among gay voters in Iowa and New Hampshire said they were pleased at the results. Marty Rouse, Human Rights Campaign’s national field director, said it was unclear how many gay voters went to the polls in each state, but anecdotal reports cited good participation. “It’s a very small percentage of the American population that participates in these caucuses,” he said, “so it only takes a small number of people to make a difference.” More importantly, Rouse said, gay voters in Iowa and New Hampshire felt they could attend the events as an openly gay person. “Think about it,” he said. “You could have been fired from your job last year in Iowa for being openly LGBT and now there’s a law that protects them. A simple law. So now they can take it to the next step. They can be open at a caucus. That is so important to these people.” Rouse said gays in New Hampshire, who recently saw the enactment of civil unions there, were able to vote as fully empowered members of their community. “Think about how they must feel,” he said. “That feeling of pride transcends everything for them. They and their families will be much more open, much more proud and much more involved in their community.” Dingbaum and McMurrin, both first-time caucus goers, said they were proud to participate as openly gay voters. “It had an impact,” Dingbaum said. “It sent a very strong statement throughout the state that we are here and we will be counted.” McMurrin, who arrived at her caucus location holding her partner’s hand, said she never felt out of place. “It was received just fine,” she said. “We didn’t get any strange looks there like we do at Wal-Mart.” Barnhill said her caucus location was so comfortable with gay issues that it passed along a resolution calling for the enactment of same-sex marriage rights. “A couple of people who I think were members of the queer community came up to me afterward and thanked me for doing that,” she said. “I was happy to do that.” Rouse said such stories show how Americans are changing how they approach gay people and issues. “Most Americans, when they hear the words gay or lesbian, think of San Francisco or New York City or Key West,” he said. “But America is really changing and there is nothing more telling on how things are changing than what’s happening in Iowa and New Hampshire.” Friday, January 11, 2008 Joshua Lynsen can be reached at


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