Why Republicans Could Have A Pro-Gay Marriage Presidential Candidate In 2016

Alex Lundry Vice President, TargetPoint Consulting
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The Supreme Court’s recent decision not to take up challenges to state amendments banning same-sex marriage has had two significant effects – it has expanded marriage to 30 states and reignited the political conversation around marriage equality in the 2014 midterms.

Since 2011, I have worked with Project Right Side to help Republican leaders navigate a radically changing electorate on the freedom to marry. While public acceptance of marriage equality has steadily increased, this moment may ultimately be looked upon as the point where Republican opposition to marriage equality began to fall in earnest.

According to a recent poll of Republicans I conducted on behalf of Project Right Side, for every Republican that said they have become more opposed to same-sex marriage over the last five years, two have become more supportive of it. In fact, in just the last three years alone, there has been an eleven point increase in Republican support for marriage rights for same-sex couples; and a seven point drop in those opposed to legal recognition.

More congressional Republicans support marriage equality, eight in total, than ever before. And this year alone, there are ten Republican candidates, five challengers, and five incumbents that support the freedom to marry.

Monica Wehby, the Republican Senate candidate in Oregon, is prominently running an ad featuring the endorsement of a gay man saying “she’ll fight for every Oregon family, including mine.” At 51 years old, Wehby stands on the Republican fault line for marriage support. Republican opposition to marriage equality is heavily concentrated among those older than 50 whereas a majority (52 percent) of Republicans under 50 support same sex marriage. Among even younger Republican voters, those under 30, support for marriage equality stands at 61 percent.

The Republican nominee in the Massachusetts race for Governor, Charlie Baker, describes being gay as “no big deal” in an ad featuring his gay, married brother. Baker’s experience is emblematic of the key driver of growing support for marriage equality: knowing a gay person. According to a recent Marist poll, Americans who personally know someone who is gay are two times more likely to support marriage equality. And CBS polling shows that Americans are much more likely to know a gay person now (69 percent) than they were in 1993 (19 percent).

Clearly, the electoral math around the marriage issue is changing dramatically; while it formerly energized conservative opponents it is now doing more to motivate Democratic supporters. Using data from a Project Right Side Election Night survey of battleground states in 2012, I’ve estimated that support for marriage equality netted Obama nearly 250,000 votes on Election Day in battleground states (he won those states by 504,422 votes). Without those votes Obama’s winning margin would have been razor thin.

What’s encouraging is that these polling trends are leading many Republicans to rightly take action in advance of 2016. The Nevada Republican Party proactively removed language from their party platform on gay marriage. A recent Project Right Side poll that surveyed Nevada Republicans tested this change and found that a strong majority (61 percent) supported the party’s removal of opposition to same-sex marriage from their platform; only 32 percent oppose it.

So what does this all mean for the forthcoming presidential campaign cycle? Karl Rove speculated that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Republican Party will witness in 2016 a presidential candidate who supports same-sex marriage. One marriage supporter, Senator Rob Portman from Ohio, has even expressed interest in exploring a bid, and evidence exists that his stance would not be a hindrance in key presidential primary states.

In surveys I’ve conducted among early state Republicans, there is a real willingness to embrace the freedom to marry. Among New Hampshire and Nevada Republicans there is actually plurality support for marriage rights. And while Iowa and South Carolina are not yet net supporters of the freedom to marry, my research shows that there is still robust support for LGBT friendly messaging and policies: 51 percent of Iowa Republicans agree that “the government should stay out of the private lives of adults, including gays and lesbians,” while 74 percent of South Carolina Republicans strongly agree that “we should all follow the Golden Rule and treat others as we would like to be treated, including gays and lesbians.”

While a good deal of work remains to be done among Republicans, the last few years have seen enormous progress. The freedom to marry movement stands at an historic moment in time and it’s clear that Republican officials in Washington and candidates on the campaign trail are poised to play a major role in gaining greater acceptance for same-sex marriage.

Alex Lundry is the vice president and director of research at TargetPoint Consulting, where he works as a data analyst. He most recently served as the director of data science for Mitt Romney’s campaign.