Sunday, January 21, 2018
Politics

Rapid change in public opinion of gay marriage challenges GOP

Opponents of same-sex marriage will march en masse outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday as justices hear arguments on two cases.

Even if traditional marriage activists win the court battles, though, it looks more and more as if they have already lost the war.

Public opinion in America has undergone such a rapid sea change that opponents of same-sex marriage increasingly look as if they soon will hold the fringe position. A growing chorus of conservatives argue that what only a few years ago was a fundamental plank of the GOP platform — opposing gay marriage — has now became a major liability.

"In 10 years or so, no one is going to be talking about this,'' conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin predicted last weekend on a panel of Republicans supporting same-sex marriage.

"I would suggest the debate has already taken place in America. We cannot be at war with America on issues of fairness, on issues of equality."

Look no further than Florida to see how remarkably the political landscape has shifted.

Barely four years ago, nearly 62 percent of Florida voters approved a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. This week a poll released by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found just 23 percent of Florida voters oppose legal recognition of both gay marriages and civil unions, and 75 percent support either gay marriage or civil unions. Among Republicans, 53 percent support civil unions, and 21 percent support legal same-sex marriage.

Another poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 54 percent of Florida voters favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally and 41 percent oppose it.

Most troubling for Republicans eager to broaden the party's appeal after President Barack Obama's comfortable re-election victory are generational attitudes. A national Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that more than 8 in 10 voters under 30 favor legalizing same-sex marriage.

It's a staggering number that doesn't surprise Matt Hoopfer, president of the College Republicans of Florida State University.

"Most younger people are very much okay with equal rights for same-sex couples. Most, even if they support traditional marriage, don't think it's the government's place to tell two individuals who they should marry and who they shouldn't,'' said Hoopfer, lamenting that perceptions about the GOP's position on gay rights hurts the party with young voters.

"It's a driving issue for sure. This past election the Republican Party was painted as intolerant to same-sex marriage," Hoopfer said. "What we've focused on since the election is saying you can be a Republican and you can believe in same-sex marriage."

• • •

That's a new approach in Florida.

In 2006, the Florida GOP spent $150,000 to help put the gay marriage ban on the ballot and when that failed, spent another $150,000 to ensure it made it on the ballot in 2008. The prime backer was then-Florida Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a candidate for chief financial officer. The move was widely seen as an effort by Lee to drive up turnout and support among social conservatives.

Sen. Lee this week called the gay marriage issue "a distraction" and became defensive when asked if he worried the GOP could be turning off young voters by opposing it.

"The presumptions in that question are so pejorative it really doesn't even warrant an answer," Lee snapped.

"The goal of the Republican Party is to broaden its appeal to younger voters, to broaden its appeal to minorities, particularly Hispanics at this point in time, and by doing so, broaden the tent. But I think to isolate a particular issue as sort of the reason why there's a problem for Republicans is just pretty narrow-minded."

A five-member task force appointed by the Republican National Committee, including prominent Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, this week issued a 97-page report on the state of the GOP that acknowledged the party's approach to gay rights has damaged it with younger voters.

"Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be," said the report. "If our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."

The report immediately drew fire — "throwing the party's social conservatives overboard," said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins — from critics accusing party elites of wanting to water down the party's fundamental principles.

De-emphasizing social issues is what helped sink John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, said Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council.

The reason public opinion is shifting on same-sex marriage, Stemberger argues, is because institutions from the media to the education system are stifling the arguments of traditional marriage supporters and too many politicians are "running and hiding instead of articulating a sound defense."

• • •

Certainly it's hard to miss the stream of recent headlines pointing to ever-wider cultural and political support for gay rights and same-sex marriage:

• More than 100 Republicans signing an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to declare that gay couples have a legal right to marry.

• Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman announcing his support for same-sex marriage, citing his experience with his gay son.

• Potential 2016 presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton announcing her support for same-sex marriage, having previously only endorsed civil unions.

• Former President Bill Clinton calling for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act he signed in 1996 defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

• The American Academy of Pediatrics this week declaring that allowing same-sex couples to marry and full adoption and foster care rights for all parents is in the best interest of children.

This week's Post-ABC poll found that 58 percent of Americans support gay marriage — an all-time high and a mirror image of seven years ago when that same poll found 58 percent opposed.

Another Pew Research Poll released this week found that 49 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage with 44 percent opposed. In 2003, 58 percent of Americans opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry, and 33 percent supported.

Last weekend, as thousands of conservative activists gathered outside of Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the shifting political winds could not be clearer:

A panel of opponents of gay rights spoke to a largely empty conference room, mostly complaining about being vilified as bigots for their traditional views. Another panel, of Republicans touting support for marriage equality, overflowed.

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]

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