A sea change on same-sex marriage?

Supporters at DNC hail shift but worry about demographic shift and voter ID laws

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Before First Lady Michelle Obama drew adulation as she spoke to gay and lesbian leaders at a luncheon here on Wednesday, a group of activists talked of the sea change in public opinion that has emerged on the subject of same-sex marriage, in no small part because of pop culture.

Days before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in May, Vice President Joseph Biden appeared on “Meet the Press” and cited the influence of “Will & Grace” in changing attitudes. Although Mitt Romney opposes marriage equality, and the Republican platform contains strong language against it, gay Republicans at last week’s convention took as a sign of encouragement a pop-culture tidbit that Ann Romney offered to “Entertainment Tonight”: Her favorite show is “Modern Family.”

Appearing at a Human Rights Campaign event at the Google tent on Wednesday, pollster Anna Greenberg noted that most polls show that support for marriage equality hovers around 48% to 52%, a contrast to even several years ago when opposition consistently commanded clear majorities. Greenberg said the shift in public opinion was “unbelievable,” given how long it took for public perceptions to change on race and women’s rights.

While she said that TV portrayals of gays and lesbians “have created a comfort level,” that doesn’t replace actually having close gay relatives or friends.

“It creates an empathy and understanding in a way that a political ad or a TV show cannot do,” she said.

Talk host Aisha Tyler said, “What is great about Hollywood is Hollywood has always pushed these ideas to the fore.” She said that it was especially important to teenagers, like one of her nieces who lives in a small town and came out at age 16.

“I was shocked at how intensely people reacted to that step,” she said.

Chad Griffin, the new president of HRC, led the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ legal effort to overturn Proposition 8 in federal court, with support from many entertainment figures and a campaign that capitalized on access to entertainment talent.

One element of that effort was a staged reading of Dustin Lance Black’s “8,” a reenactment of the Prop 8 trial, which featured former CNN host Campbell Brown.

At the panel, Brown said that another shift has been in the way that the story has been covered by the mainstream media.

“We were part of the problem for a long time because much of the media treated this as a political issue,” she said. “It is not a political issue. It is a civil rights issue.”

A test will come this November, when four states, including Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, have same-sex marriage initiatives on the ballot. HRC is giving $5.4 million to the campaigns, but there is cautious optimism that the heavier turnout in a presidential election year and the polling gains in recent years will provide a different outcome than every other state that has had marriage on the ballot. Opponents of gay nuptials have won, most recently a lopsided victory in North Carolina.

Demographic shifts — with younger voters supporting marriage equality — are one explanation for the polling swings. And while opposition has lost some steam, even among Republicans, it doesn’t mean that the battle is over.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, even called the demographic shift “worrisome.”

With their backs up against the wall, he said, opponents “are going to fight like hell.” He tied the move toward voter ID laws to fears of a change in the makeup of the population. “When you attack the black vote, the Latino vote, the youth vote, they are attacking the demographic shift.”

While a win in even one of the states would represent a significant victory, perhaps changing the narrative of consistent rejection at the ballot box, Griffin said that it is going to take more than waiting for a demographic shift.

“We have to work even harder now than we have been in the last five years,” Griffin said.