Is Gay Marriage Still a Wedge Issue?

In ways large and small, gay marriage proponents have had momentum on their side the last few weeks -- in fact, the most momentum their ...
by | April 24, 2009

In ways large and small, gay marriage proponents have had momentum on their side the last few weeks -- in fact, the most momentum their cause has ever enjoyed in the United States.

The Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, then the Vermont legislature did the same. Gov. David Paterson introduced a bill to allow gay marriage in New York, where two polls showed more voters favoring the move than not. A poll in New Jersey had a similar result. The cause showed signs of momentum in New Hampshire and Maine. And, Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to John McCain during his presidential campaign, came out in favor of gay marriage.

Are the days of Republicans benefiting from their opposition to gay marriage over?

My answer: Probably not yet, though they may be soon.

Gay marriage has been a classic wedge issue for Republicans. A large chunk of Democrats have always agreed with the Republican position in opposition to gay marriage. Republicans had the Democrats divided and they won votes as a result.

And, that's still pretty much the dynamic. As you'll see in the chart below, over the past five years, the vote for gay marriage bans in states has pretty consistently (with only four exceptions) been higher than the vote for Republican presidential candidates.

Quick explanation of the chart: "Ban %" is the percentage of the vote that a ballot measure to ban gay marriage received. "AVG Rep." is the average of Bush's 2004 performance and McCain's 2008 performance in the state. The final column is the difference between those two numbers. The states with a "*" next to them are ones where the measure could have been interpreted as barring civil unions or other same-sex benefits in addition to gay marriage.

Gay marriage votes  

On average, the gay marriage bans received 12.6 percentage points more of the vote than the Republican presidential candidates. That dynamic hasn't changed, even while support for gay rights has been increasing the past few years.

Even in more liberal states, which aren't heavily represented on this list, support for gay marriage isn't as high as support for Democrats. In New York, where President Obama won 63%, an average of 51% of New Yorkers favor gay marriage in two polls. In New Jersey, where Obama won 57%, 49% were in favor.

That said, it's not a given from all of this that Republicans are gaining or will gain lots of votes from opposing gay marriage. Sure, a fairly sizable number of Democrats oppose gay marriage, but how many of them actually consider voting Republican as a result? That's a much harder question to answer.

Plus, there are reasons for Republicans to be wary on the topic. Besides the breadth of opinion, the intensity of opinion also counts (in fact, often it counts more). Does gay marriage motivate partisans on each side to vote, to donate, to volunteer?

For a while, social conservatives seemed to be more passionate about the topic in larger numbers. But, since Prop. 8 in California, I'm not so sure. I bet for the first time we'll see a lot of Democratic candidates for governor supporting gay marriage in 2010 because it's something Democratic voters really care about.

The biggest reason for Republicans to be wary, though, is that young voters increasingly disagree with their position. The chart below compares exit polling of how 18-29 year olds voted on gay marriage bans to the vote from the overall population (this chart only includes states where exit polling was available). Note that in every state but one, young voters were less likely to support the ban.

Gay marriage young voters

These numbers actually understate the support for gay marriage among young voters, both because they disproportionately come from red states and because a lot has changed over the last five years. As a result, Republicans may need to decide whether the short-term benefits of using gay marriage as a wedge issue are worth the risk of alienating a group of voters who will be in the electorate for many decades to come.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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