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SSM and the Bully Pulpit

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A commenter brought up Amanda’s post about the effect of Obama coming out for same-sex marriage. (Digby has similar thoughts.) Both are responding to this Washington Post story about public-opinion and the response to Obama coming out in favor of SSM.

Well, let’s consider this. The Post has the trends in the data online (Question 23). In terms of support for SSM, there’s…nothing. 53% support it after Obama’s interview; 52% in March; 51% in July 2011; 53% in March 2011. There’s no evidence of any effect at all. So as the headline suggests, the evidence for the power of the BULLY PULPIT would have to be in the reduced opposition, which did drop from 43% to 39% between March and May. But particularly given the longer-term trend — opposition was 55% in 2004, 50% as recently as 2010 — this is pretty weak evidence. The 4 point drop in opposition might reflect an effect from Obama’s speech, but it also might reflect statistical noise combined with longer-term trends favoring same-sex marriage. The fact that support didn’t increase is further reason to be skeptical.

Of course, this one data point hardly disproves the theory that Obama’s support will have some effect. It’s possible that this could, like foreign policy, be an exception to the rule that presidential rhetoric doesn’t influence public opinion. Since what matters here is the position-taking, at least believing that there will be some effects doesn’t require transparently implausible theories about the electorate paying close attention to the details of presidential speeches (when even professional BULLY PULPIT obsessives can’t remember the details of presidential speeches.) Nonetheless, as a general rule using the bully pulpit can’t sway public opinion, so I won’t believe that Obama’s interview will significantly increase support for same-sex marriage unless the data clearly shows otherwise. As of now, it doesn’t; hopefully Amanda and Digby will be proven right in the future.

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