A few years ago it looked like opposition to gay marriage was going to equal or surpass abortion as the ultimate wedge issue - a device capable of defeating Democrats in all but the most-liberal districts.
And yet consider this:
-The topic didn't come up in Tuesday's debate
-There's not been a single McCain-Palin ad on gay marriage.
-John McCain did not mention it in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.
-Sarah Palin did not mention it in her convention acceptance speech, either.
-Of the 57 speeches listed on McCain's Web site, I couldn't find a single mention of the gay marriage issue.
For starters, the topic has less currency because there are fewer referendums on state ballots. While 11 states considered ballot initiatives in 2004, only three are this year. That means fewer campaign dollars and volunteer hours focused on the issue.
More important, public opinion has shifted. Social issues in general have become less important to voters as the economy has worsened. The new Twelve Tribes study by Beliefnet and the University of Akron, showed that percentage of people listing moral issues as most important is now half what it was in 2004.
But that's just part of the explanation. After all, abortion is getting significant attention. The Catholic bishops, for instance, have been far more vocal opposing abortion than gay marriage. It's not like social issues have completely disappeared.
Rather, while the public hasn't much changed its views on abortion, it has on gay rights. For instance, in 2004 48% of "Convertible Catholics" supported civil unions or gay marriage. In 2008, 61% do. Among Moderate Evangelicals, the percentage was 33% in 2004, 42% in 2008.
Just as important, young people have starkly different views on gay issues than their parents. Most surveys show this but it's particularly striking among evangelical Christians, who are just as anti-abortion as their parents but significantly more supportive of gay rights. The Barna Group asked "born again Christians" if they believed that "homosexual lifestyles" are a "major problem" The results show a stunning shift by age:
18-41 – 35%
42-60: – 52%
61+: – 71%
With support for gay marriage or civil unions rising, conservative politicians have to be careful where and how they push this issue.
Though McCain approved a Republican platform that called for a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, he routinely contradicts that view by saying he wants it left up to the states. When McCain and Palin do discuss their opposition to gay marriage it's now usually accompanied by a statement of tolerance towards homosexuals.
Political strategists realize there are still large numbers of people who view gay marriage as a major threat. But now, candidates must appeal to them without alienating moderates or younger voters.
Since abortion seems to work just as well as ever among culturally conservative voters like moderate evangelicals, they figure: stick with that.
Adapted from Steven Waldman's "Political Perceptions" column at the Wall Street Journal Online.