The remarkable political turn of fortune for the same sex marriage issue has been stunning, particularly when you consider that as recently as 2004 national Republicans advanced a policy agency that placed opposition to gay marriage at the center of many statewide races. Analysts differ on whether the issue helped propel George W. Bush to a close re-election victory that year, but it is not debatable that bans on gay marriage passed, and passed easily, in 11 states in 2004. It is also undeniable that less than 10 years ago Christian conservatives believed that state-level battles over same sex marriage where big time political winners. Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council, claimed after the 2004 election that gay marriage was “the hood ornament of the family values wagon” that delivered electoral success for Republicans.
How quickly all this has changed.
Just before the vote in Hawaii the Illinois legislature voted to move the state from recognizing same sex unions to fully legalizing gay marriage. By one count fully 35% of Americans now live in a state where gay marriage is legal. As the New York Times recently noted, “last fall, voters approved marriage measures in Maryland, Maine and Washington, and lawmakers in Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota passed laws this year. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey withdrew his efforts to block same-sex marriage, and weddings began in that state last month.”
The movement in public opinion on the gay marriage issue has been nothing short of stunning. One recent poll – the Marquette Law School survey in Wisconsin – shows that even in an arguably swing state with a socially conservative Republican governor (and a lesbian U.S. Senator) the public tide has turned in support of same sex marriage. “Support for same-sex marriage has increased over the past 12 months in Wisconsin,” the Marquette survey reported “with 53 percent now supporting same-sex marriage, 24 percent favoring civil unions and 19 percent saying there should be no legal recognition for same-sex unions. This question was asked of 400 respondents and has a margin of error of +/-5.0 percentage points. In October 2012, 44 percent said they favored same-sex marriage, with 28 percent favoring civil unions and 23 percent opposed to any legal recognition.”
The respected Pew Research Center survey in June noted that the movement on same sex marriage “over the past decade is among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period.”
Among the highlights in the Pew survey:
For the first time a majority of those surveyed – 51% – indicated support for same sex marriage.
These numbers seem to be driven by a simple but powerful fact. Nearly everyone in the country – 87% in the Pew survey – now acknowledge a gay or lesbian acquaintance or family member. Ten years ago only 61% said the same.
Support for same sex marriage is literally off the charts among young Americans. Now 66% of so called “millennials” – Americans born after 1981 – support same sex marriage. Ten years ago the support level in this group was ten percent less.
Even more striking is the view held by both supporters and opponents that gay marriage is simply inevitable. “The rising sense of inevitability is most notable among some of the groups that tend to be the least supportive of gay marriage itself,” according to a Pew survey in May. “The share of Republicans who see gay marriage as inevitable rose from 47% to 73% over the past nine years. The same pattern holds along religious lines: the share of white evangelical Protestants who see gay marriage as inevitable rose from 49% to 70%.”
A New Political Language…
Further evidence of the political shift underway is the type of rhetoric now employed by opponents of gay marriage. Gone is the mantra of pushing back against a sinister sounding “homosexual agenda” in favor of a “states’ rights” approach. “I support marriage between one man and one woman,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said recently “but I also think it’s a question for the states. Some states have made decisions one way on gay marriage; some states have made decisions the other way. And that’s the great thing about our Constitution, is different states can make decisions depending on the values of their citizens.”
Telling in terms of the national political map and how the issue might play in future national elections is the fact that the only region of the country where opposition to same sex marriage is now greater than support is in the deep south, an area some analysts contend is the only and shrinking base of the national GOP.
The states’ rights strategy driving opposition to same sex marriage, and effectively sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, will likely remain the focus of coming political battles. Oregon, for example, is gearing up for a ballot measure in 2014, which many believe will pass.
Still the patchwork quilt of differing marriage laws seems sure to spawn a whole new level of controversy. Idaho, which has a Constitutional prohibition, is now facing a federal law suit challenging the same sex marriage ban approved by voters in 2006. The Idaho prohibition has also precipitated a dispute over how the state will treat same sex income tax filers who may be legally married in one state, but are unable in Idaho to share in the tax benefits that other married couples enjoy. These issues can only become more complicated as inevitably more states legalize same sex unions.
Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recently seemed to suggest the handwriting of gay marriage inevitability is writ large on the political wall. Rubin quoted from a GOP strategy memo in a recent column to underscore the delicate nature of the issue for many opponents. “One poll-tested sound bite being suggested to candidates references the Golden Rule — to ‘treat others as we’d like to be treated, including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.” The line, according to a memo from a GOP polling firm hired to guide the campaign, wins support from 89 percent of Republican voters.” Rubin added, and I agree, that it is heartening to know that the Golden Rule still polls well.
But here is the real political point for the future of the gay marriage issue in national politics. “In 2016,” Rubin writes, “we therefore can imagine that all GOP presidential candidates will have a similar position: They may be personally against gay marriage, but they will respect the decisions of states, although favor the definition be changed by popular as opposed to judicial action. There may be variation on that theme. It is one driven not necessarily by donors or pro-marriage advocates, but by political and cultural reality.” In other words the country really has changed dramatically and the change will only continue.
Perhaps the only real question left is to ponder which state(s) will hold out the longest against the trend of support for gay marriage that has been steadily moving in one direction for a decade.