Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Double-Edged Wedge Issue

Elected Republicans should be praying that the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage nationwide, because anything short of that will have huge electoral implications for the party for years to come.

Public opinion has shifted faster on marriage equality than on any other issue likely since the civil rights era.  In 2004, Karl Rove famously engineered a way to get the issue to appear on several states’ ballot for referenda in order to drive turnout among conservatives. 

In truth, it was a brilliant strategy, and one that likely secured Ohio and Iowa (and therefore the election) for President Bush.  In fact, conservatives have used that very strategy to boost Republicans in numerous elections.

But now public support has shifted towards the proponents of marriage equality, and don’t think for a minute that the Democrats won’t use that to their advantage this time.  In 2004, support for same-sex marriage was at 33%, with nearly 60% opposed.  Today, those numbers have nearly flipped.  A new ABC News/Washington Post poll pegged support for marriage equality at 58% with only 36% opposing it. 

And the trend should only be expected to continue.  Nate Silver, the wonderfully wonky statistician who predicted President Obama’s victory in November is projecting that by 2016, thirty-three states will have outright majorities in support of marriage equality, and by 2020, only six will remain in opposition. 

If the Supreme Court fails to secure marriage as a right for all Americans, the fight will continue to be fought state by state, often by referenda.  Sure, there are states that are liberal enough to legislate marriage equality, but the LGBT lobby will likely be pushing hard for states with majority or near majority support to secure same sex marriage at the ballot box. 

This move could be the one thing that drives younger voters to the polls.  Among 18-29 year-olds, 81% support same sex marriage.  Further, younger voters are more likely to be Democrats.  The mid-term election in 2014 will likely have a greater share of its voters being young and liberal than in previous cycles. 

Republicans should be very worried about the rulings in June.  They should hope for the court to make a swift and sweeping decision so gay marriage is no longer on the political front-burner each election cycle, because it is no longer a wedge issue that works in the GOP’s favor.  

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