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On Gay Marriage, Senate Republicans Are Out of Step With the Republican Base

The GOP electorate has shifted toward widespread support for same-sex marriage.
September 14, 2022
On Gay Marriage, Senate Republicans Are Out of Step With the Republican Base
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

Supporters of same-sex marriage are struggling to find 10 Republican senators who will help their cause. In July, 47 House Republicans—22 percent of the House Republican conference—voted for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would prohibit legal discrimination among marriages on the basis of sex. In the Senate, supporters need 10 Republicans—20 percent of the Senate Republican Conference—to reach the 60-vote threshold to cut off a filibuster and pass the bill.

Getting those 10 votes may be difficult, because today’s Republican senators grew up in a party that opposed same-sex marriage. These senators may believe, as Sen. Ted Cruz apparently does, that by blocking the bill, they’re representing the party. But that assumption is no longer true. Over the past two decades, among rank-and-file Republicans, opposition to gay marriage has plummeted. If today’s 50 Republican senators truly represented their voters, they wouldn’t just be supplying 10 votes for the Respect for Marriage Act. They’d be supplying 20 or 25.

For the past quarter-century, Gallup has asked Americans whether “marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.” At first, only about 20 percent of Republicans said such marriages should be recognized. Then the number began to rise. From 2010 to 2014, it was around 30 percent. From 2016 to 2019, it was in the low- to mid-40s. In 2020, it rose to 49 percent. For the past two years, it has been 55 percent.

In other surveys, which sometimes pose the question differently, the number isn’t quite as high. In May, a national poll taken by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 40 percent of Republicans favored “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.” And in surveys taken in 2020 and 2021 for the Public Religion Research Institute, 51 percent and 48 percent of Republicans, respectively, endorsed “allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.”

Even in polls that don’t yet show a Republican majority for same-sex marriage, the trend is heading that way. For nearly 20 years, surveys conducted by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal have asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into same-sex marriages?” During that time, the percentage of Republicans in favor has risen from 11 percent (in 2004) to 22 percent (in 2009) to about 30 percent (in 2012-13) to 40 percent (in 2015). Today, it’s 47 percent.

What’s even more striking in NBC/Journal polls is the collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2004, 84 percent of Republicans said they were against allowing such marriages. By 2015, that number had plunged to 49 percent. In the latest NBC News poll, taken in May, it’s down to 31 percent. Which means that for every two self-identified Republicans who oppose allowing gay marriage, there are now three who support it.

Among Republican leaners—the independent, mostly conservative voters on whom the GOP depends to win elections—acceptance of same-sex marriage is clearly the more popular position. Since 1996, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans about “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.” Until 2009, only about 25 to 30 percent of Republican leaners favored that policy. Since then, the percentage has surged into the low 40s (in 2011-13), the high 40s (in 2015-16), and the mid-50s (2017-19). The last time the question was asked, in 2019, 56 percent of Republican leaners favored it.

What’s going on here? Why have so many Republicans changed their views?

One reason is that a lot of gay people have come out, and many of them are in Republican families or social circles. In a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll, only 24 percent of American adults, let alone Republicans, said they had “any friends or relatives or co-workers who have told you, personally, that they are gay or lesbian.” By 2003, 51 percent of Republicans told Gallup they had such friends. By 2013, that number had increased to 65 percent. Knowing someone who is openly gay correlates with much higher likelihood of support for same-sex marriage.

This year, in an Economist/YouGov poll, only 22 percent of Republicans said they didn’t know anyone who was “lesbian, gay, or bisexual.” Nearly half said they had an LGB acquaintance. More than a quarter said they had an LGB family member, and 19 percent said they had a close LGB friend. Six percent identified themselves as LGB.

Republicans are also becoming familiar with married same-sex couples. In the Economist poll, 20 percent of Republicans said they had an acquaintance who was part of such a couple. Eleven percent said they had a family member in a same-sex marriage. Nine percent said they had a close friend in a same-sex marriage. Three percent said they themselves were in such a marriage.

Another factor behind the shift in Republican views on this issue—perhaps related to becoming more aware of gay friends or acquaintances—is a rise in the percentage who say that sexual orientation, like color, is inborn. In 2003, only 24 percent of Republicans told Pew researchers that homosexuality was “something that people are born with.” By 2015, that number had increased to 34 percent. In Gallup polls taken from 2001 to 2003, 30 percent of Republicans said gay or lesbian people were born that way; by 2015 to 2018, the figure was up to 36 percent.

The sea change in public opinion on homosexuality is quite different from abortion, where there’s been relatively little movement. There’s an easy way to explain this divergence: Both questions involve sex and freedom, but only one involves destroying a human fetus. For this reason—contrary to what Republican politicians might assume—roughly one-third to one-half of pro-lifers now support same-sex marriage.

In a June poll by Suffolk University, 51 percent of Americans who said they wanted the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade said the opposite about marriage: They would oppose “a Supreme Court decision that overturned the right of same-sex couples to marry.” Only 39 percent said they would support overturning that right. Even among respondents who said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, most opposed overturning the right to same-sex marriage.

When you pit same-sex marriage against states’ rights, most pro-lifers choose states’ rights. In a YouGov survey for Yahoo News, conducted in May, 52 percent of self-identified pro-lifers said “states should be able to outlaw” same-sex marriage. But 31 percent still chose the alternative answer: that same-sex marriage was “a constitutional right that couples in all states should be entitled to.” The numbers were identical when, instead of relying on pro-life self-identification, the pollsters looked at answers from people who said abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances.

Senators who want to vote against the Respect for Marriage Act can find ways to frame the issue so that most Republican voters will agree with them. In particular, they can argue for states’ rights, which, when combined with moral opposition to same-sex marriage, still has majority support (albeit narrowly) within the GOP.

But the states’ rights position has already lost majority support among Republican leaners. In July, a Marquette Law School poll found that 55 percent of leaners favored the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling “that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.” Self-identified Republicans, with 45 percent support, weren’t far behind.

Over the next decade, it’s likely that support for gay marriage will continue to grow among Republicans, making it the clear majority position within the party. Trend data compiled from NBC/Journal polls show that since 2009, among Republican adults younger than 50, the percentage who favor “allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into same-sex marriages” has more than doubled, from 25 percent to 55 percent.

As these younger Republicans replace their elders, who grew up in a different era, Republican politicians who oppose same-sex marriage will find themselves out of step even in primaries. And it will become increasingly awkward for Republican senators to explain not why they voted for the Respect for Marriage Act, but why they didn’t.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.