Tables turning on GOP, social issues now benefiting Democrats

Once upon a time, Republicans would use social issues like gay marriage and abortion to drive voter turnout and attack Democrats. But that dynamic is shifting.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Republicans used to be able to consistently leverage social issues like gay marriage for their gain at the ballot box. But several races suggest Democrats are starting to gain the upper hand.

For at least the last several decades, Republicans have generally seemed to benefit from social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the war on drugs, and crime. While it was rarely the case that these issues were the primary issue motivating most voters in a given election, the GOP has often been able to use them as wedge issue that would break apart traditional Democratic coalitions and lead people to vote for Republican candidates even if they might be more sympathetic to Democrats on economic and other issues. Additionally, these issues have long been used by both sides, but seemingly most effectively by Republicans, as a way to motivate strongly opinionated base voters to get out to the polls in what otherwise might be a low turnout election, thereby possibly providing enough support to, hopefully, put a particular candidate over the top. To a large degree, this was the methodology behind the “Southern Strategy” that Republicans began adopting in the Nixon era, and which bore fruit decades later in the form of the GOP’s dominance in states that used to be solidly Democratic. As recently as 2004, Republicans were able to use opposition to same-sex marriage as a wedge to help drive voter turnout in the presidential election, most especially in Ohio, which just happened to be the state that decided the election that year.

Now, however, it’s beginning to look as though social issues may be turning into a wedge issue that favors Democrats:

WASHINGTON — Facing re-election, Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin, no longer talks about stopping same-sex marriage. “It’s those on the left that are pushing” the issue, he says.

Ed Gillespie, the Republican Senate candidate in Virginia, argued that Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic incumbent, was “making up my views” when Mr. Warner accused him of seeking to overturn abortion rights and ban some forms of contraception. In fact, Mr. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said in a recent debate, he wants contraceptives available (behind the counter) at pharmacies without a prescription.

Representative Cory Gardner, a Republican in a tight Senate race in Colorado, proposed the same thing after the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby case exempted some private businesses from covering certain contraceptives in health insurance plans. He was shielding himself from attacks by Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, who has spent months slamming Mr. Gardner’s “radical agenda” on abortion and family planning.

Udall is running his entire campaign on social issues,” said Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “All they talk about is birth control, ‘personhood,’ abortion.”

So will many other Democrats this fall. They aim to match President Obama’s feat in 2012, when the incumbent used topics such as same-sex marriage and contraception as weapons to offset his vulnerability on the economy. That they would even try while facing the older, whiter, more conservative midterm electorate shows how thoroughly the politics of social issues have turned upside down.

The tumultuous social changes that began in the 1960s supplied decades of political ammunition for Republicans. Beginning with Richard M. Nixon, they rallied Americans disturbed by noisy protests over civil rights, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War.

“Acid, amnesty and abortion” was the epithet hurled at the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern. Republicans seized on concerns about welfare, school busing and crime — memorably with a black convict named Willie Horton in 1988 — to cement their grip on white voters. As recently as 2004, Republicans used a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to rally tradition-minded “values voters” behind President George W. Bush’s re-election.

Now the values wedge cuts for Democrats. Demographic change keeps shrinking Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress overhauled welfare. Fear of crime has receded enough that members of both parties propose more lenient sentencing.

American households have changed significantly. Nearly half of adults are unmarried. Fully 10 percent of opposite-sex married couples are interracial or interethnic. Acceptance of same-sex marriage has expanded with astonishing speed.

Legalization of medical marijuana has moved, in two states, Colorado and Washington, to legalization of recreational marijuana. College students from the Summer of Love are pushing 70, the elders who disapproved of their behavior are largely gone and young adults are wondering what the turmoil was ever about.


A recent Pew Research Center study highlighted how the Republican base diverges from majority opinion and experience. Members of a category Pew calls “steadfast conservatives,” mirroring Tea Party Republicans, attend church more often than any other group. More than half of them have guns in their homes, compared with one-third of the population over all.

Only 18 percent of staunch conservatives say society should accept homosexuality, compared with 62 percent overall; 16 percent believe society is “just as well off” if people have priorities other than marriage and children, compared with 50 percent over all; and 28 percent favor legalization of marijuana, compared with 54 percent over all.

Six in 10 want their representatives to stick to their positions rather than compromise. Seven in 10 call immigrants “a burden” on society, and say America’s best years have passed. While 61 percent of the population says the globe is warming, three in four staunch conservatives see “no solid evidence.”

Those attitudes complicate the party’s ability to forge a new majority coalition as education levels rise and attitudes change.

None of this is surprising, of course. We’ve seen polling on same-sex marriage, contraception, marijuana legalization, and a host of other social issues shift decidedly against the traditional Republican positions for quite some time now. As younger voters become a larger part of the electorate, this is likely to become only more true as time goes on. For example, the most recent polling has shown that younger voters are so completely turned off by the Republican Party’s stance on issues such as marriage equality, marijuana legalization, and immigration that they wouldn’t even consider voting for a Republican candidate. The problem that this poses for Republicans, of course, is that even if they do start changing the party’s position on these issues, it’s not at all clear that there would be any clear electoral benefit to them, while it’s likely that such a move would elicit scorn, to say the least, from the socially conservative base of the party. For proof of that, one need look no further than the exceedingly negative reaction that former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) received in 2011 when he called for a truce on social issues within the Republican Party so that candidates could concentrate on issues such as the economy and federal spending where, to some degree, the GOP has an advantage over Democrats in most polling.  As it turns out, there is plenty of evidence that Mr. Daniels was right in calling on the GOP to stop emphasizing divisive social issues, but Republicans have generally not taken well to that advice even as it becomes more apparent that the party’s position on these issues is harmful.

None of this is to say that Democrats can ride social issues to victory in every race, of course. Turnout in specific races, the quality of the candidates and their campaigns, and the state of the economy will always be more important issues than these wedge issues. However, just as the GOP was once able to use social issues such as these as wedge issues in close elections, we seem to be entering a time when it will be Democrats that are following this strategy. This is one reason why we’re seeing many Republicans in close elections – such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Cory Gardner in Colorado – do the best that they can to evade these issues even if it means seeming to contradict their previously stated positions. No doubt we’ll see more Republicans equivocate or change their position on issues like marriage equality as the polling becomes clearer. In any case, expect social issues like marriage and contraception to be a big part of the election narrative this year, and in 2016. The difference is that this time it will be the Democrats who are emphasizing the issues, and Republicans who are running from them

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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