It’s common wisdom among most members of the establishment, Democrat or Republican, that “social issues” are a weakness for GOP presidential contenders. The evidence for that idea usually consists of national polls showing majorities in favor of various liberal social themes. These data ought not to be ignored, but they can obscure as much as they inform. The most important question is rarely asked: Are national liberal majorities geographically distributed in such a way as to produce an Electoral College majority?
A recent 50-state poll from the YouGov polling firm, however, uniquely throws some light on this question’s answer. Careful analysis shows liberals ought to curb their enthusiasm.
The YouGov poll is interesting because it asked the same questions at the same time to large enough sample sizes in virtually all states to make comparison between them meaningful. This allows us to see whether, for example, support for same-sex marriage is widespread throughout the country or deeply concentrated in already blue states.
This ability matters greatly since presidents are elected on the basis of the Electoral College, not a national popular vote. If conservative social-issue stances hurt Republican candidates in highly educated, liberal places like California or Massachusetts, rational GOP candidates should not care because they were going to lose those states anyway. If, on the other hand, they seem to help or hurt among red- or purple-state voters, political antennae ought to be raised.
The YouGov survey shows that some social issues are more dangerous than others for prospective GOP presidential candidates. Same-sex marriage is problematic in many red and purple states, for example. Abortion, on the other hand, looks to be a very strong issue for Republicans.
Same-sex marriage is opposed by a plurality in only 19 states with a total of 180 electoral votes. Romney carried all of these states, and four of the states he carried (Alaska, Arizona, Montana, and Kansas) have pluralities in favor of same-sex marriage.
One would hope that a candidate does not simply put his or her finger to the wind and base his/her position on such an important issue on polls. But the polls do show that it is no longer 2004, when George W. Bush could forthrightly defend traditional marriage without having to explain his views very deeply.
Abortion attitudes, on the other hand, are much more favorable to the GOP. Every Romney state has at least a plurality that believes abortion should be either completely illegal or legal only in “special cases (such as rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is at risk).” Majorities in seven purple states (Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) also endorse the conservative position on abortion. In sum, pro-life sentiments command majority or plurality support in 31 states with a total of 314 electoral votes.
It’s worth noting which purple states share conservative pro-life sentiments and which don’t. States in the more libertarian and Hispanic West (Nevada and Colorado) are strongly pro-choice, as are states with large numbers of highly educated white northerners like New Hampshire and Virginia. Southern-tinged Florida and midwestern states with large proportions of blue-collar, non-Evangelical whites, however, retain conservative views on abortion.
One ought not to read too much into one set of polls. However, these findings do suggest that the elites in both parties are wrong to treat all “social issues” the same and to assume that the GOP must adapt or die on all of them.
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.