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What should Minnesotans make of the N.C. marriage vote?

It’ll take more than Democratic votes for Minnesota’s amendment to fail, says political adman Bill Hillsman.

Residents of the Old North State voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriage on Tuesday.

As was widely anticipated, North Carolinians voted Tuesday to amend their state’s constitution to outlaw legal recognition of any domestic arrangement except for the marriage of one man and one woman.

Today, advocates campaigning for and against a similar proposal here are likely to spend the day putting their gloss on the potential impact of Amendment 1’s passage in Minnesota.

Their likely respective spins:

Opponents of same-sex marriage will note that the ban, the 31st straight win for their side at polls around the country, was enacted by an even wider margin than had been predicted. It passed by some 61 percent, vs. a predicted 55 percent.

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And they will predict victory in the other states where voters this year are likely to cast ballots related to gay marriage: Minnesota, Maryland, Washington, Maine and possibly New Jersey.  

“I think it sends a message to the rest of the country that marriage is between one man and one woman,” the head of the vote-yes coalition said Tuesday night. “The whole point is simply that you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design based on the demands of a group of adults.”

Last southern state

In contrast, gay-rights supporters are likely to note that North Carolina was the last state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to enact a ban, and differs demographically from Minnesota in a number of important ways. Located in the Bible Belt, its Democrats lean toward the socially conservative.

They are also likely to argue that without either presidential nomination in play in yesterday’s primary, North Carolina’s unusually heavy vote can be credited to residents who otherwise would have been unlikely to turn out at all. Liberal Minnesotans, meanwhile, will be more likely to vote in next fall’s general election.

And they are likely to note that with nearly a year more lead time and a smaller gap to close — a January poll showed the pro-amendment forces ahead 48 percent to 44 percent — Minnesota’s same-sex marriage supporters enjoy better odds.

The confusion issue

There is likely some truth to all of that. And yet a poll taken in North Carolina over the weekend suggests that the biggest problem confronting vote-no campaigns in both states is simple confusion.

Both states already have statutes barring same-sex marriage. Supporters of the constitutional amendments have said they are needed to stop “activist judges” from overturning those laws.

Unlike Minnesota’s proposed ban, North Carolina’s Amendment 1 outlaws civil unions and domestic partnerships, even between heterosexuals. On Sunday, only 46 percent of that state’s residents realized the proposal did more than ban gay marriage; 61 percent of those who understood the scope opposed the amendment, according to the Democratically inclined Public Policy Polling.

Another 6 percent believed that a yes vote would legalize gay marriage; 20 percent reported having no idea what the amendment would do.

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The poll conducted by the same firm in Minnesota in January did not test voter comprehension of the impact of a yes vs. a no vote on the November ballot question, only opinions about the legal recognition that should be afforded gay and lesbian couples.

“The language is fairly similar between the two amendments,” said Dustin Ingalls, assistant director of the polling firm. “I would expect to see a similar amount of confusion.”

Failure to convey consequences

Bill Hillsmansimonandschuster.netBill Hillsman

To strategist Bill Hillsman, the adman whose spot-on campaigns helped propel dark horses Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura to victory, that confusion suggests the vote-no forces blew it.

“People there didn’t really know it would ban civil unions as well,” he said. “That seems to have been a major failing that they didn’t do a decent job telling people about the consequences.”

Nor is Hillsman convinced it matters that Minnesota is “bluer” than North Carolina. “In Minnesota you’re not going to be able to get this [defeated] on the backs of Democrats across the state,” he said. “The numbers just don’t work.”

If the amendment is to be defeated here, he said, it will be because of gay-rights support among liberal Republicans and suburban conservatives who don’t think there’s anything wrong with same-sex unions.

Sees independents as swing voters

Minnesota’s independents will be the swing voters, he argued: “They tend to be fiscally conservative but socially libertarian.”

Indeed, Republican lawmakers likely had reasons beyond banning gay marriage for putting the amendment on the ballot in November. “What happened in ’08 scared Republicans so badly they’re looking for opportunities to put socially conservative items on the ballot with Obama,” said Hillsman. “They can get people to come out just to vote for that.”

About half a million people voted early in North Carolina. It was unclear yesterday whether anyone was conducting exit polling, but as expected the survey taken Sunday showed older voters and conservatives more likely to vote yes.

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One surprise: Many African-Americans planned to vote against the measure. Possibly because the North Carolina NAACP and many black leaders came out strongly against Amendment 1, support among African-Americans narrowed from 71 percent in November to 55 percent last weekend.

Vote-yes leaders had planned to “drive a wedge” between blacks and gays, according to internal memos disclosed as a part of a lawsuit pending in Maine.