Strange bedfellows: Obama and Romney voters in love

Though "politically mixed" couples are a minority, they exist – and elections can bring out old tensions. takes a look at a handful of young people in love, but in disagreement over who should win the White House on November 6.


Kelly Vance and her husband, Patrick, both emergency room doctors, met in medical school several years ago and fell in love.

Deeply connected by their Catholic faith and common profession, the two live in Illinois, where they have been happily married since 2007.

There’s only one glitch: Kelly, 29, is a Democrat and steadfast supporter of President Barack Obama, while Patrick*, 31, is a Republican backing Mitt Romney.

Famous politically mixed couples

- Janna Ryan, wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, was a liberal Democrat when she met her husband.

- Former first lady Laura Bush was a registered Democrat before marrying George W. Bush.

- Former Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain in the 2008 election, while his then-wife Maria Shriver was a vocal Obama supporter.

- Left-leaning pundits James Carville and John Avlon are married to Republican strategists Mary Matalin and Margaret Hoover.

For all the clichés about there being no real difference in how Democrats and Republicans govern, politics in America are as polarised as ever, with the president and his rival articulating dramatically divergent stances on nearly every major issue. Perhaps for that reason, “politically mixed marriages are a minority,” according to James Cordova, professor of psychology at Clark University and specialist in marital health.

But these couples do exist – and every presidential election becomes a potentially fraught moment in which their differences can bubble to the surface.

One religion, two interpretations

Though Kelly explained that she “follows the teachings of the Church” (no birth control, no abortion), she specified that she does not want her personal beliefs to become law. “I’m a doctor,” she said bluntly. “I don’t want patients coming in bleeding from illegal abortions.”

She also supports same-sex marriage. “Just because being gay violates one teaching of the Church doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the right to share your life with the person you love,” Kelly offered. “The most important commandment is to love each other. I believe in social justice. That’s why I’m voting for Obama.”

While Kelly gets her news from The New York Times and The Huffington Post, her more traditional Catholic husband Patrick is a fan of incendiary conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. “When we were first married, he would listen to Rush when I was in the car, and I would yell at him that I hated it,” Kelly confided. “Now he turns it off when I’m around.”

How will they get through the 2012 election without strangling each other? “We avoid arguments over specifics. But we discuss certain issues and listen to each other’s point of view,” she said.

That openness enabled Kelly and Patrick to get close in the first place. “When we were dating and I started looking at who he truly was, rather than what I expected him to be based on his political beliefs, it got a lot easier,” Kelly reflected. “It’s amazing what you learn when you actually listen to a person.”

Finding common ground and a measured tone

Some couples find that “political differences have very little influence on their day-to-day lives together,” Dr Cordova noted. “They go to work, raise their children, maintain their homes, and politics rarely comes up.”

Case in point are David* and Sara*, 31-year-old attorneys in Dallas, Texas. David, a Democrat, volunteered for Obama in 2008 and remains a stalwart supporter. Sara is a Republican who worked in the Bush administration budget office and supports Romney.

But according to David, the two - who were initially introduced by a mutual friend and now have a 2-year-old son - have never been “confrontational” over politics. “If we’re out to dinner, it’s probably the tenth or eleventh thing we talk about,” he said. “It entertains our friends and family more than anyone else.”

The couple has been able to find common ground on “hot-button issues” (both are pro-choice and in favour of same-sex marriage) and remain measured in their assessments of the other’s preferred candidate. “Sara disagrees with Obama, but she doesn’t have a visceral reaction against him,” David noted. “And I think Romney’s ideas are wrong for the country, but I don’t think he’s a bad person.”

Another ‘fault’ to live with

There are couples, however, for whom politics is a landmine that occasionally explodes.

Susie Ortega and Brian Fernald
Susie Ortega and Brian Fernald

Susie Ortega, a 32-year-old manager at a non-profit, is voting for Obama in the crucial swing state of Virginia. “I don't think he’s done a great job, but his policies don't outright scare me like Mitt Romney’s,” Susie said, adding that she “loves” the president’s stances on women’s issues and LGBT rights, as well as his winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Susie met her husband, Brian Fernald, on a dating website. Brian, a 29-year-old lab technician, supports Romney because he feels “the economy needs a businessman to recover”. He also thinks reforms like Obama’s healthcare overhaul “are using tax money for people who aren’t doing anything to help themselves”.

Brian had listed himself as a Republican on the dating site. Nevertheless, Susie said, “We still went out on the date and managed to love each other and get married. This is one of those ‘faults’ we each will have to live with.”

Sometimes, though, Susie loses her cool when the two talk politics. “Brian is very even-tempered and walks away from confrontation. I yell and scream and chase him down the hall,” she admitted.

Or, as Brian said: “When she gets started, I pretty much just let her roll with it.”

There have been near-breaking points. “At times I felt we were too different to stay in a relationship,” Susie acknowledged. “But we worked through it.” She is grateful that Brian “has never tried to recruit [her] to the ‘dark side’”.

Indeed, according to Dr Cordova, efforts to convert one’s significant other politically usually backfire. “Partners who try to change things about each other that are basically unchangeable…often become more polarized and eventually start to see each other primarily as opponents,” he said.

A source of ‘chemistry’

On the other hand, Dr Cordova explained, “Research shows that when people of differing political views talk honestly with each other from a perspective of mutual respect, they become…more able to not only see each other's viewpoints, but to appreciate the complexities and nuances of the issues.”

Alan Morales and his boyfriend, Charlie
Alan Morales and his boyfriend, Charlie

Alan Morales and his boyfriend, Charlie*, are a fitting illustration. The two met online eight months ago and live in Washington DC, where Alan, 26, works in public relations and Charlie, 30, is a freelance writer. Alan will wholeheartedly cast his ballot for Obama (mainly for the president’s LGBT-friendly positions) while Charlie, who considers himself a libertarian, will definitely not (though he is not eager to vote for Romney, either).

“Obama’s had more than enough time to get results,” Charlie said. “Nothing much has happened.”

The couple’s political differences came up on their first date. But Alan and Charlie found that rather than drive them apart, their opposing views actually spiced things up. “Our political disagreements have been a source of amusement, education, and chemistry,” Charlie remarked. He also noted that as a gay man who is not a Democrat, he often has to explain himself to displeased friends. His relationship with Alan has served as practice; “it’s been good for me to have to defend my views,” Charlie said.

Alan has also found the experience of dating someone more conservative to be enlightening. “That’s the purpose of a relationship: being able to openly discuss things, and learn about each other and from each other,” he said.

There has only been one time that politics came between Alan and Charlie. “When Obama endorsed gay marriage, the Twittersphere was blowing up with people saying how awesome it was,” Alan recalled. “But I was chatting online with Charlie, and he didn’t sound that excited.”

Charlie explained his reaction: “It was great that the president came out in support of marriage equality, but he had already been for it and then against it. It was a powerful gesture, but also a slightly empty and strategic one.”

Alan begged to differ. “It was a great example of leadership,” he interjected. “I couldn’t care less if it was strategic.”

Alan and Charlie say they may watch the debates together to see what kind of conversation it sparks between them.

Meanwhile, David and Sara have no plans for either the debates or election night, and Kelly and Patrick will probably “sit around watching TV coverage, cackling if our candidate wins and the other’s loses,” as Kelly put it.

Susie and Brian will also turn on the news the evening of November 6, but will try to exercise restraint. “Whatever happens, happens. One of us will be grumpy, while the other does their best not to gloat,” Susie said. “We at least respect each other enough for that.”

*This person chose to have his or her last name omitted from the article.

Main photo by Cain and Todd Bensen via Flickr

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