Why historic shift on gay marriage isn't likely for Republicans

Despite the well-meaning efforts of reformers, the evidence against moderation inside the GOP on same-sex marriage remains robust, even if it means losing the 2016 presidential election.

Danny Johnston/AP
Demonstrators gather on the steps at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday. In response to pressure from business and civic groups and a veto threat from the new Republican governor, the GOP-controlled legislature is rushing to rework its controversial religious freedom bill to ensure protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The recent political firestorm over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the extent to which the national backlash against it has forced Hoosier State Republicans to revise the law to address the arguments that it promotes discrimination is only the latest skirmish in a battle that has been going on in the United States for more than 15 years. Beginning in 1993 in Hawaii, and continuing through what now clearly seems to be the high-water mark of the “traditional marriage” movement in 2004, when a number of states began enacting laws or constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, the nation has been in the midst of what can only be called one of most significant political and cultural transformations in quite some time. From a time in the late 1990s when more than three-quarters of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, we are now at a point where a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage and where only a handful of demographic groups, older Americans and Republicans, contain a majority that says it opposes it.

The change has even been apparent inside the Republican Party. Notwithstanding the fact that, statistically, Republicans are less likely to support marriage equality than almost any other demographic group, the numbers have been changing there, just as they’ve been changing in other parts of society.  Several Republican members of the US Senate have publicly endorsed same-sex marriage. When the Supreme Court rejected appeals of the rulings against their state’s same-sex marriage bans, Republican governors in IndianaWisconsin, and Utah called for public acceptance of the outcome rather than joining in the condemnation that was coming from some parts of the Republican coalition. And, just recently, more than 300 Republican politicians, pundits, and leaders signed off on an amicus brief calling on the court to strike down the remaining state law bans on same-sex marriage.

Now, National Journal’s Alex Roarty notes that one group of Republicans is gearing up for fight on the issue of marriage as we get closer to 2016:

The argument they are making to skeptical Republicans is blunt: If the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee opposes gay marriage, he or she will lose to Hillary Clinton.

That’s certainly hyperbole: Voters are focused on big-picture concerns like the economy and foreign policy. But against the backdrop of rapidly shifting public opinion, it’s increasingly difficult to make the case that opposition to gay marriage will at some point be anything but a political loser for the GOP. An NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll this month found a record high 59 percent of respondents support same-sex marriage, and it’s just one of many recent surveys that show public support sitting comfortably over 50 percent.

To advocates, the issue is especially salient among younger voters who might otherwise lean Republican but vote Democratic because of the GOP’s intransigence on social issues. “There will be Republican voters who trust the party on economics, who trust the party on national defense, but they might have a gay brother or a lesbian daughter, and even though they agree with the Republican Party on other issues, that is a deal-breaker,” says Tyler Deaton, senior adviser to the pro-gay-marriage American Unity Fund, an influential organization backed by Republican hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer. “And that’s a deal-breaker for more American voters than ever before.”

As important as the general-election argument might be, convincing Republican leaders that there is enough support within the party to protect them from the potential backlash from the social conservatives who typically dominate the primary season is a trickier task. Here again, advocates try to rely on data: Support for gay marriage has grown by 11 percentage points among Republicans since 2011, according to Alex Lundry, a pollster for Project Right Side, a group created by one of the most influential, openly gay men in the party, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. “The Republican Party is fast approaching a majority on support of gay marriage,” Lundry says. “I want to be clear: We’re not at that yet. But we’re getting there.”

Among Republican advocates, there’s widespread belief that most elected officials and political leaders are ready to move on, convinced that issues like the debt and national defense are more important than whether gay men and women can marry. But they believe those leaders will keep their views private, worried about antagonizing a pocket of social conservatives who strongly oppose gay marriage.

Part of Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry’s effort aims to dismiss that concern by arguing that just a few GOP officials’ public backing can pave the way for more to follow. “Party leaders who had always, behind the scenes, given a wink and nod are now willing to go on record,” says Christian Berle, former deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, pointing to two Republican senators – Rob Portman and Mark Kirk –who now openly support gay marriage.

That’s a bullish assessment, for sure. Dig deeper into the polling and what’s clear to Republican operatives on the fence about supporting gay marriage is that sentiment among conservative voters in conservative states hasn’t shifted. A New York Times survey last year found that 70 percent of conservative Republicans said it should not be legal for same-sex couples to marry.

And while the importance of social issues has dimmed within the GOP, evangelicals still constitute a huge bloc of its voters with enormous influence over the party’s agenda. Tony Perkins and other religious leaders are already warning that if the Republican National Committee drops its opposition, it will alienate core supporters. “Do they want to take the risk of offending what was 25 percent of their vote in the last general election by engaging in this? I don’t think they do,” says Perkins. “I think it’s too risky for the RNC and nominee to engage in this.”

Noah Rothman at Hot Air seems to see the logic behind this argument:

An NBC News/Marist University survey of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina recently found that a majority now see opposition to gay marriage as mostly or totally unacceptable for the party’s presidential nominee. Only in Iowa did a narrow plurality of likely Republican caucus-goers say opposition to gay marriage remains an acceptable position for a prospective nominee to hold.

The party is changing. If scrapping the party platform altogether is not on the table, the GOP’s position on relatively inconsequential social issues should at least be reflective of the changing dynamics around the country. If the most controversial aspect of the GOP platform is its opposition to elective abortions, a position that is increasingly shared by the public, it will become that much harder for Democrats to frame the GOP as the party of extreme social values.

The interesting thing to watch, of course, will be how Republican politicians, and particularly the candidates for president, react if, as pretty much everyone seems to expect at this point, the Supreme Court issues a ruling in June striking down bans against same-sex marriage in the remaining 15 or so states where it has not been legalized. At that point, the party will be left with two choices. It can accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on this issue and recognize that a cultural debate that has been going on for the better part of two decades has, for the most part, come to an end. Or, it can  double down on the social conservative position on this issue, denounce the Supreme Court’s opinion as “judicial activism,” and advocate the adoption of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only being between a man and a woman. One path offers Republicans a path out of the cultural and political dead end that this issue has placed them in, although it’s likely to disappoint social conservatives who are unwilling to give in to reality. The other path sends the GOP down a path that is likely to alienate precisely those voters that it needs to attract if it is going to have any hope at all of winning the presidential election in 2016 and holding on to Senate seats in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.

As Roarty notes, though, those inside the GOP who are trying to push the GOP in a more libertarian direction on marriage are running up against the reality of internal GOP politics. Last year, I speculated that it might actually be possible for the Republican Party to nominate a candidate who supported marriage equality in 2016, but as things stand now that possibility seems to be even more remote than it was a year ago. Rather than causing the GOP to tone down the rhetoric on marriage, I now suspect that a Supreme Court ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage nationwide will only serve to energize the social conservative wing of the party and that even something as innocuous as changing the party platform on this issue will end up becoming impossible. I’m willing to be proven wrong, but the evidence against moderation inside the GOP on this issue, not withstanding the admirable and well-meaning efforts of the reformers, is really rather obvious. How that will impact the GOP’s fortunes in the 2016 elections if I turn out to be right about this remains to be seen.

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

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