Why more Republicans – even GOP primary voters – back same-sex marriage

The generational changes that helped widen public acceptance of same-sex marriage are affecting Republicans, too. So is the deepening consensus that the debate on same-sex marriage is essentially over.

Eric Gay/AP
Faith leaders and congregation members of various churches from around the state rally on the step of the Texas Capitol steps to call for more equality for same-sex couples, on Tuesday, in Austin, Texas. Fifty-five percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage, including growing support in GOP ranks.

It has been more than two years now since we first started seeing polls showing that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, including the most recent Gallup poll on the issue, which showed 55% of Americans support marriage equality, a mere 15 years after the same poll showed that more than three-quarters of Americans opposed it. Not surprisingly, this polling has also showed differences across a number of demographic groups. younger Americans, Americans who are more highly educated, and people who identify as Democratic or Independent are now groups that strongly support the right of gays and lesbians to marry; while older Americans, Republicans, and those who self-identify as conservative have tended to remain opposed. A new poll from NBC News and Marist College, though, has some surprising results when it comes to Republicans:

NBC News and Marist College are out with a batch of new 2016 primary polls. And as you might expect, Common Core, immigration reform, belief in man-made climate change and support for raising taxes on the wealthy are among those with the potential to alienate lots of conservatives.

But according to the polls, so does opposition to gay marriage – an issue on which Bush agrees with basically every other candidate.

The polls, in fact, show that about half of likely GOP caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina said they find opposition to gay marriage either “mostly” or “totally” unacceptable in a candidate. Fifty-two percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina said opposing gay marriage is either mostly or totally unacceptable, while 47 percent of likely Iowa caucus voters agree. [Emphasis added.]

By comparison, 63 percent of Iowa voters say belief in man-made climate change (and fighting it) is unacceptable, 56 percent of New Hampshire voters say raising taxes on the wealthy is a non-starter, and 52 percent of South Carolina voters say support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship is a deal-breaker on one level or another.

Voters in all three states find a candidate who supports gay marriage to be about as amenable as one who doesn’t toe the party line on any of these issues.

And while the numbers are surprising, they make some sense. A Pew poll conducted in March 2014 showed 39 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners supported gay marriage. Add the passage of time and the fact that non-Republicans can vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and you’ve got a potentially less anti-gay marriage electorate come next year.

On some level, of course, this isn’t entirely surprising. While previous polling has shown people who identify as Republican more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than support it, those numbers have been changing, just like the numbers for the population as a whole have been changing. Thanks to the fact that Republicans are more likely to be religious and politically conservative, it’s no surprise that it has taken longer for them to come along on this issue than other Americans, but it was always likely that they would start to change their minds just as the general public has, it’s just happened more slowly. The Republican lag on same-sex marriage in polling has also been influenced by the fact that older Americans have been the demographic group most likely to oppose marriage equality, and they also happen to identify as Republican more than other age group. As younger Americans come to be a larger portion of the subgroup of self-identified “Republicans,” though, it only makes sense that the poll numbers would reflect that change. In other words, the generational changes that have played a large role in the widening public acceptance of same-sex marriage are affecting Republicans as much as they have everyone else, it’s just happened at a slower pace.

More than demographic changes, though, I suspect that a large factor in the changing Republican attitude on same-sex marriage is quite simply the fact that most Republicans, just like most Americans, are coming to realize that the debate on same-sex marriage is essentially over. In just the past two years, we have seen the Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional, something which led to a whole series of court rulings that have made same-sex marriage legal in the vast majority of the country. In addition to those legal victories, voters and state legislatures in a number of states have legalized same-sex marriage, while the last time that a ban on same-sex marriage was passed into law was the North Carolina referendum in April 2012. The Supreme Court has let decisions striking down same-sex marriage bans in dozens of states stand, which has opened marriage up to couples in states from Alaska to Florida, including such unlikely places as South Carolina, Kansas, and Alabama. Now, we are mere months away from a Supreme Court decision on the appeal of the only federal appeals court decision upholding a marriage ban that will, according to all of the available evidence, result in a decision declaring bans against same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. From a handful of states in 2012, we are now at the point where same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and will likely be legal in the remaining 13 states in a few short months. Throughout the entire process, many leading Republicans have been largely silent on the issue, and many have been supportive of the expansion of marriage equality.

This poll, I would suggest, reflects an opinion among many Republicans that the best thing that can happen to their party is for the same-sex marriage issue to go away, which is essentially what will happen if the Supreme Court rules as most court observers expect it to. The recent events in Alabama confirm that there will likely still be some element in the Republican coalition that will be strongly opposed to marriage equality, at least for the foreseeable future. This element of the party will likely try to do what it can to mount some kind of counterattack, but this poll, along with others that we have seen recently, seems to suggest that they are unlikely to find many supporters inside the GOP. In the end, Republicans will come to accept same-sex marriage just like the rest of America has, and the social conservatives who exploited the issue in the past will find themselves left out in the cold.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.