Could gay marriage be a bigger problem for Republicans than for Democrats in 2008?
The latest Pew poll shows that support for gay marriage has risen over the last year and a half, growing from 29% in January 2004 to 32% last summer to 36% now. At this rate, it’s possible that a majority (or at least a near-majority) of Americans will support gay marriage in 2008. Already a slight majority support civil unions. There is a striking partisan divide on this issue. Almost half of Democrats and Independents support gay marriage, 45 and 46 percent respectively. But only 19 percent of Republicans (and 14 percent of conservatives and 14 percent of white evangelicals) back it (what about white evangelicals who are conservative Republicans, i.e. pretty much the entire South Carolina primary electorate).
While Democratic activists and donors will probably overwhelmingly support gay marriage in 2008, there doesn’t appear that there will be a major Democratic candidate who will. Hillary Rodham Clinton supports civil unions, but not gay marriage. And she’s sensitive enough about her culturally polarizing image that she’s not likely to go out on a limb on this. She should have no problem winning liberal votes and dollars. John Kerry supports civil unions, and has been a stalwart supporter of gay rights (enough to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act), but has been wary of gay marriage. Mark Warner, Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack are all pushing their red-state electability, and gay marriage doesn’t fit into that image. Joe Biden and Wesley Clark will focus on foreign policy. Who will be the gay-marriage candidate? John Edwards? Nah. Russ Feingold? Al Gore?? Most likely all the Democratic candidates will share the same position: no on gay marriage (but it’s OK if individual states want to adopt it), yes on civil unions, no on the Federal Marriage Amendment. No disagreement, no story. And I don’t see Democratic voters feeling strongly enough about this issue to force the candidates to support gay marriage. Iowa and New Hampshire don’t have large, visible gay populations.
By contrast, gay marriage will loom large in the Republican contest. First of all, Republican primary voters and (especially) caucusgoers strongly oppose gay marriage (and most probably still will in 2008). Not only that, but much of the GOP base is intensely hostile to homosexuality in general. According to a 2003 Pew poll:
72 percent of conservative Republicans believe that there are too many gays depicted in the media. 84 percent oppose gay marriage.
69 percent of white evangelicals have an unfavorable view of gay men (almost half have a “strongly unfavorable” view. Over half believe school boards should be able to fire gay schoolteachers. About two-thirds believe gays can change, almost three-quarters hear about homosexuality in church (almost always negatively).
These numbers may have softened over the past two years, but probably not by much. Iowa caucusgoers and South Carolina primary voters won’t have much use for anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly oppose gay marriage – and they’re not likely to be sympathetic to civil unions either.
Secondly, there are significant differences among potential Republican candidates on gay issues. Rudy Giuliani supports civil unions, signed a generous domestic partnership bill as mayor, and famously lived with two gay men. John McCain opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment and attacked Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson during the 2000 campaign. By contrast, George Allen, Bill Frist and Sam Brownback are all staunch backers of the FMA; Brownback will probably base his presidential campaign to a great extent on this issue. Mitt Romney became a national star by opposing gay marriage, but has been ambiguous on civil unions. Unlike the Democratic contest, there will be fireworks on gay issues among Republicans. And given the conservative views of the GOP base, most of the talk will come from the anti-gay side. It’s quite possible that the Republican nominee will be someone locked into opposition to both gay marriage and civil unions, firm support for the FMA, and who has a record of launching anti-gay attacks during the primaries.
This could be a real problem for the GOP. Independents are much closer to Democrats than to Republicans in their views of gay marriage and civil unions. By 2008, a majority of Americans may support gay marriage; 53 percent already back civil unions. Already, many voters compose what Ramesh Ponnuru calls an “anti-anti-gay” bloc hostile to anything that smacks of intolerance. A militantly anti-gay Republican nominee could have real problems. By contrast, Hillary (or whomever else the Democrats run) will have positions in line with the electorate, and no record of participating in angry exchanges on gay rights during the nomination contest.