Barack Obama is facing growing discontent from gay groups which were an important source of support in the 2008 presidential election.
Activists complain Mr Obama’s administration has not lived up to promises on issues of equality and civil rights after campaigning to end the military policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, which forbids homosexuals from being open about their sexuality while serving.
This disillusionment already hurt the Democrats when the Republicans chalked up large gains during last year’s congressional election and though many leading Republicans are hostile to gay rights, some potential 2012 presidential nominees are seen as able to attract gay support.
“It’s definitely possible that if the economy doesn’t recover or appears to be in really bad shape then a Republican nominee could grab a greater percentage of the gay vote in 2012,” said David Drucker, an analyst at Washington-based Roll Call.
Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah, is expected to declare his candidacy next week and has a record of being supportive of civil unions. Even Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty could pull gay voters depending on how they frame their positions.
“They are not partisan bomb throwers,” said Mr Drucker. “If they focus on economy, then gay voters may feel comfortable with them.”
National exit polls from the 2010 House of Representatives election showed the Republicans gained 31 per cent of gay votes, up from 19 per cent in 2008. Financial contributions from gay rights groups and associated individuals, as tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics, fell by more than half between the 2006 and 2010 midterm polls, though the proportion going to Democrats was unchanged.
“I don’t endorse President Obama now,” said Dan Choi, a gay veteran who was discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and a previous supporter of the president. “I think that the Democrats and their machine have done more damage to the gay community, as far as splitting and turning them against each other as anything in the whole of history of gay rights.”
Mr Choi is set to go on trial this month for demonstrating outside the White House last November against the discharge policy. “I don’t see the gay community as having an organic party anymore. I don’t see them as having only one option in 2012.”
In December, Mr Obama signed the repeal of the 1993 military discharge policy, but gay groups complain that the transition process is taking too long. Six months later, gay service members are still being discharged amid a “training” phase. Another two-month certification process lies ahead before the policy is completely abolished.
“I find it offensive that it takes nearly a year to make the transition,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, which defends gay soldiers and veterans. Mr Obama’s lack of support for gay marriage has compounded the discontent.
In April, the chorus of criticism from gay groups crested when ServicemembersUnited, the largest gay military group by members, was not invited to a military event at the White House. “It was the first military event at the White House since repeal [of the discharge policy] and we asked for representative to be included,” said Alexander Nicholson, executive director. “First they didn’t think of it themselves, but when we pointed out and asked to have a representative, they specifically refused, which was disappointing and puzzling.”
But aware of the importance of the gay community’s support for 2012, Mr Obama has recently appointed a number of gays and lesbians to his re-election campaign. Next weekend, the Democratic National Committee plans to hold its biggest fundraising event for gay supporters in New York, an event that will be closely watched for signs of waning enthusiasm.