On November 6 President Obama carried the state of Maryland by a more than comfortable 62-37 margin over Mitt Romney, while Question 6, the same-sex marriage law, was passing by a much narrower 52-48 edge. The Washington Post, reporting on AP's Election Day opinion survey, gave its story an accurate if unsurprising headline: "Exit polls: Maryland voters who backed Obama also favored same-sex marriage." Yes, Democratic voters did tend to favor the history-making same-sex marriage law, and Republicans did tend to oppose it. But that tends to conceal a more interesting story. The Maryland contest produced extensive "ticket-splitting" in both directions: even as same-sex marriage was being battled over in some solidly Democratic areas, it was winning surprise victories on Republican turf elsewhere.
The fight for the black vote on Question 6 -- especially in Prince George's County outside D.C., where black churches are a major political force -- became the best-known story of the campaign. P.G. gave Barack Obama a near-unanimous 90 percent of its vote, but approved Question 6 by a margin of 49-51, a steep 41 percent drop-off; exit polls indicated that black voters were split about half and half on the new law. In the city of Baltimore, where Obama got 87 percent, same-sex marriage drew 57 percent, a 30 point drop-off that would probably have been worse had the city not been home to concentrations of liberal whites. Of course black voters were not the only source of fall-off between the Obama vote and the 6 vote; a fair number of whites who supported Obama also declined to support 6.
At the same time, though, a significant number of Marylanders were splitting their tickets the opposite way, voting for Romney (or, occasionally, for Libertarian Gary Johnson) and then approving Question 6. In fact county-level results reveal that across wide swaths of Republican territory in Maryland, same-sex marriage actually ran well ahead of Barack Obama and the Democratic ticket. That means there were many, many Romney voters who voted for the same-sex marriage law -- enough, in fact, that without them the measure would almost certainly have lost by a mile. (I should mention that I volunteered for the Question 6 effort, working especially among libertarians and conservatives on its behalf.)
When a race is as close as 52-48, to be sure, almost everyone can plausibly take credit for the outcome. Gov. Martin O'Malley and his Democratic party establishment, with plenty of help from unions, made the measure a priority. Liberal-leaning Montgomery County came through with huge majorities for 6 that more than made up for deficits elsewhere. President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and the NAACP, by endorsing the measure this spring, boosted black support for the idea, probably by enough to tip the results. All these people and groups can reasonably take credit for making the difference.
But so can the Republicans who quietly voted for 6 in large numbers. Consider the data.
* Two major bulwarks of Republican strength in Maryland, Anne Arundel and Frederick Counties, went both for Romney and for same-sex marriage. The two counties have been home to some of the state's best- known anti-gay politicians, such as Del. Don Dwyer of Anne Arundel and former Sen. Alex Mooney of Frederick. Frederick County especially, where I live, is famed as a right-wing stronghold: this year, for example, it sided with conservative Republican Senate challenger Dan Bongino, even as Bongino was going down by a two-to-one margin to incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin statewide. And as it backed the Romney-Bongino ticket, Frederick County was breaking in favor of gay marriage 51-49. In Anne Arundel, the margin was 52-48 in favor of marriage for everyone, the same as that in the state overall. Romney carried Anne Arundel by a point.
* If ever a Republican county in Maryland deserved the label "rock-ribbed," it would be Carroll County, northwest of Baltimore, which gave Mitt more than a two-to-one margin over Barack Obama, his best showing aside from the state's far western Panhandle. Close behind would be affluent Queen Anne's County across the Bay Bridge from Annapolis, which returned almost as good a showing for the former Massachusetts governor, and Harford and Cecil Counties northeast of Baltimore, which gave him still very impressive 3:2 margins over his Democratic opponent.
None of this group of counties went for Question 6: they're simply too Republican, and support for same-sex marriage is distinctly a minority position among Republicans. What they did all do was to generate substantial swing votes in favor of gay marriage by voters who hadn't gone for Obama. In Carroll, Question 6 ran a remarkable 11 points ahead of the president, in Queen Anne's 10 points ahead, in Harford and Cecil 5 points, and in Frederick and Anne Arundel 3 to 4 points. Collectively these counties contributed tens of thousands more votes for Question 6 than if gay marriage had been, as you might put it, only as popular as the chief executive of the United States. And this actually understates matters, since in every county some voters were splitting tickets in the opposite direction, meaning that pro-6 switchers had to be more numerous than 11 (or 10 or 5) percent for the overall effect to net out at that level.
Certain themes recurred with Republicans who supported the same-sex marriage law. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness in his or her own way. Government shouldn't be going around deciding that one church is right and another wrong. These might be our friends and neighbors or our own children and giving them equal rights doesn't hurt anyone else. The whole question is none of the government's business.
It's a refreshing, if not exactly new, strain of American conservatism. And it just might have made the difference in carrying Question 6 to victory.