Politics & Policy

Republicans for Gay Marriage?

One GOP pollster thinks it’s all but inevitable.

Jan van Lohuizen, a former George W. Bush pollster with a Ph.D. from Rice, is on a mission to show that opposition to same-sex marriage is a political and demographic dead end, propped up by a shrinking core of the old, the undereducated, and the highly churched. Bitter clingers, if you will, to the idea of traditional marriage.

“I have any number of gay friends who are Republicans, but what makes me tick is that I have concerns that this is another issue that would limit the growth of the Republican party,” van Lohuizen told me in a phone interview.

“If you believe that the government is better off if it is governed by Republicans than Democrats, you have to worry about issues that impede the growth of the party. And this is one.”

Together with Joel Benenson, former lead pollster for President Obama’s first campaign, van Lohuizen has looked at decades of polling data on gay marriage and come to some interesting conclusions in a series of memos the pair has distributed to policymakers, think tanks, and political media.

Most significant, support for gay marriage is accelerating. “We originally wrote a memo in May of 2011 that basically said that in the previous 20 years, the increase of support for gay marriage had been about 1 percent a year,” van Lohuizen told me in a phone interview. “And then somewhere around 2009 there was an increase to 4 or 5 percent. It’s like a hockey-stick curve. All of the sudden there is this elbow.” With due apologies for the “hockey stick” reference, this is certainly borne out by the shift in the fortunes of pro-gay-marriage ballot initiatives. After a decade marked by almost universal failure, all four pro-gay-marriage measures on state ballots in 2012 passed.

Second, the coalition supporting gay marriage is more broad-based than the coalition opposing it. “If you look at the crosstabs, the opposition is really concentrated in a few really small groups,” van Lohuizen says. “Evangelical whites, tea-party Republicans, older voters, and whites that do not have a college degree.” Indeed, national exit-polling data from the 2012 election shows that while support for gay marriage sits at 37 percent with voters 65 and older, 52 percent of younger voters support “freedom to marry” (the phrase strategically used in place of the slightly more loaded “marriage equality” in Benenson and van Lohuizen’s memo on the subject). Likewise, gay marriage enjoys majority support from all major religious confessions except white evangelical Protestantism — including mainline “non-evangelical” Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. And while a majority of whites without college degrees oppose gay marriage, majorities of whites with college degrees, and nonwhites of all education levels, support it.

Even among Republicans, opposition to same-sex marriage is increasingly tenuous, particularly along two axes. First, self-described tea-party Republicans oppose gay marriage 84/13, while Republicans who describe themselves as neutral toward or opposed to the Tea Party oppose gay marriage by smaller 62/34 and 52/47 splits, respectively. This is a more or less momentous split depending on how credible one finds evidence that tea-party membership is in sharp decline.

Second, and perhaps most critically, exit polling shows that 51 percent of Republicans under 30 support gay marriage in their state. If this datum alone holds, one might think, gay marriage is a fait accompli in the near to medium term. And indeed, the polls report just that feeling among the broader public: 83 percent of voters, supporters and opponents included, think that gay marriage will be legal nationally in the next five to ten years.

But is a Republican party that is broadly pro-gay-marriage an inevitability, and sooner than later? Here the data is perhaps less definitive than it looks on the surface. Consider the above datum, which shows that young Republicans support gay marriage in their state. This, of course, fails to capture a number of distinctions that most Republicans and conservatives consider important to the gay-marriage debate. Does support among young Republicans for “freedom to marry” in one’s state of residence imply support for federal intervention in the marriage question?

Many on the left who support “marriage equality” frame it as a civil-rights issue and favor a federal remedy, as they do in most civil-rights contexts. But it would be dubious to infer that the Republican respondents to the above question would favor a similar remedy, considering the relative importance Republicans and conservatives place on the principles of federalism. Likewise, I asked van Lohuizen whether any of the data he looked at distinguished between support for various other means of gay-marriage legalization — from judicial imposition to legislation to ballot referenda — that are likelier to draw out distinct responses from self-described Republicans and conservatives for similar, principled reasons.

While van Lohuizen admitted that such distinctions aren’t captured in the data that informs his memos, he referred to a survey he helped design on support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Two questions — one on the section of DOMA that forbids the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex unions from the states, and the other on the section that denies various legal benefits afforded to spouses (such as hospital visitation) to same-sex couples — suggest that support for and opposition to same-sex marriage can and do exist apart from support for and opposition to individual principles and doctrines implicated in the gay-marriage debate.

To wit, the survey shows that while only 52 percent of respondents supported gay marriage, 59 percent believed the federal government should recognize legal same-sex unions from the states. And even larger majorities believed that the government should extend to same-sex couples various privileges and responsibilities attendant on traditional marriage:

Interestingly, while there are conservatives and Republicans who express these sorts of “cat’s out of the bag” views on issues attendant to legalized gay marriage, there are also attempts by some gay-marriage proponents to accommodate the worries of Republicans and conservatives on the same. Here, van Lohuizen pointed to Maryland’s Question 6, which last year granted gay and lesbian couples the ability to obtain civil-marriage licenses. But the ballot question also, according to an official summary:

protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

It’s not crazy to think that Question 6, which passed with a narrow majority of 52.4 percent and represents the first time same-sex marriage has been legalized in the United States through a popular vote, was pushed across the finish line by such protections. Indeed, the legislative precursor to Question 6 passed the Maryland state house only after its sponsors beefed up religious protections.

In a world in which one can be against gay marriage but for its recognition, and for marriage equality but against requiring its religious recognition, it’s not enough to ask whether the Republican party is destined to wed “freedom to marry.” The truth is, it’s complicated.

— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.


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