By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called his decision to support same-sex marriage the result of a personal evolution but it also appears to have been a calculated political choice made with an eye on the November 6 election.
In becoming the first U.S. president to publicly support gay marriage, polling analysts said Thursday, Obama essentially is betting that his decision will generate enough enthusiasm among young people to offset any votes he will lose from moderate and conservative whites who disagree with him.
A key part of Obama's calculus, analysts said, also will be to hold on to the enormous majority he enjoys among black voters. Church-going blacks are divided over gay marriage but pollsters say they are unlikely to vote for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama, the nation's first black president, in November.
"From a strategic vantage point, Obama is making a good decision here because this is the direction the country is going," said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson. "Support for gay marriage has gone from the low teens to a near or outright majority of the country supporting it over the course of the last couple decades."
Obama, who before Wednesday's declaration had said he supported civil unions of same-sex couples but not legalized marriages, was under increasing pressure from within the Democratic Party to take a firmer stance on the issue, which analysts say is particularly important to voters under age 35, a voting bloc that helped lead Obama to the White House in 2008.
"Leading from behind on an issue like this is not great," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "For young voters this is becoming kind of a defining issue. It was almost untenable for him to be out here with a position that was way behind the times."
Reuters/Ipsos online polling data from 2012 indicates that more than half of registered voters under age 35 think same-sex marriage should be allowed, while just 22 percent of that age group think it should be illegal.
That level of support for same-sex marriage is more than any other age group, the poll found.
The question was asked of 7,616 registered voters under age 35 between January 1 and May 3, and the results have an accuracy of plus or minus 1.3 percentage points.
FALLOUT AMONG BLACKS?
In describing his decision, Obama said his daughters, Sasha and Malia, were an influential factor. He said they had friends whose parents were same-sex couples and that the girls would never think that those parents should be treated differently from heterosexual parents.
Obama took his stand on gay marriages three days after Vice President Joe Biden had said he was comfortable with them. Senior administration officials said Obama had intended to announce his change in position before the Democratic National Convention in September and acknowledged that Biden's comments had moved up that timetable.
During the interview with ABC in which he declared his support for same-sex marriage, Obama said he understood why people believed marriage should be only between a man and a woman. He said he realized there could be some fallout from his supporters, especially among black Americans.
The continuing Reuters/Ipsos online poll showed that only 30 percent of blacks thought same-sex marriage should be legal - 9 points lower than the national average. One-third of the blacks who were polled said they thought gay marriage should be illegal.
Despite their views, blacks remain likely to vote enthusiastically for Obama, analysts said.
"African Americans are against gay marriage, by and large," said William Galston, political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But at the same time, it is my hypothesis that the pride that African Americans feel in having an African American in the White House is much stronger than the influence of this one issue.
"Socially conservative African Americans are going to be prepared to say, 'We disagree with Mr. Obama on this one,'" but it's not a deal-breaker.
In a head-to-head matchup against Romney, about 81 percent of blacks who were against gay marriage said they would vote for Obama, compared with about 5.4 percent who would back Romney.
About 90 percent of blacks who favor gay marriage would vote for Obama, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling after Romney became the clear Republican nominee, between early April and May 3.
The poll questioned 465 African Americans who were against gay marriage. Those figures were accurate to within 5 percentage points. It questioned 379 blacks who favored gay marriage and those figures were accurate to within 6 points.
Republican activists and conservative Christian leaders criticized Obama's stance and said it was a political risk that would help mainly Romney, who does not support gay marriage.
"This will help Romney tactically a little bit," agreed Jackson of Ipsos, noting that Romney has struggled to consolidate support among social conservatives. "This is going to give Mitt Romney one more piece that he can use to solidify his own coalition."
Some of the more conservative white voters who have backed Obama may switch to Romney in light of the president's new stance on gay marriage, analysts said.
But they said any losses likely would be countered by an influx of new enthusiasm by gay men, lesbians and young people. Enthusiasm among such groups is crucial to Obama's re-election chances and the groups have not been as active this year as they were on Obama's behalf four years ago, analysts said.
Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said Obama's new position on gay marriage could give many voters under age 35 a big incentive to show up at the polls on November 6.
"There's a mean here of justice and fairness and of equality for all Americans that really kind of excites them - and provides them with a reason to perceive they have a personal responsibility to go out and vote," Sainz said.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Bill Trott)