That GOP Gay Marriage Memo

May 13, 2012 6:48 a.m.

You may already have seen the following memo on the gay marriage issue from President Bush’s 2004 pollster Jan van Lohuizen. I believe Josh Green was the first to publish it at Bloomberg. Others have picked it up since. It seems to have circulated pretty widely in GOP operative circles.It’s a fascinating document — not so much for the argument it makes (that Republican should essentially embrace marriage or call off the war against it) as the data it advances. Because the numbers it shows pretty convincingly make the argument that the war over gay marriage is basically over.

This isn’t to say President Obama’s decision to embrace the issue is a gimme for him in political terms — it’s still quite possible that it will be a net loser for him in purely electoral terms, though I think that’s now slightly less than likely. But the direction of the public opinion data is so overwhelming as to suggest that there’s no way to turn back to the tide. Anyone who’s followed the public opinion data on this topic knows that marriage equality is overwhelmingly more popular among the young than the old. But, as he notes, even among older voters opinions are rapidly changing. Until 2009, support went up about 1% a year. Since then it’s been about 5% a year.

There is one caveat I would add to the discussion. van Lohuizen’s take is I think fairly identified with the Movement and libertarian wings of the GOP, the contemporary elite, in most respects. But the electoral power of GOP politics is still largely driven by white evangelical voters. And I don’t expect that group to move any time soon. Still, the change is vast and rapid.

So why is it that gay marriage has always gone down to defeat when it’s come to an actual public vote? Partly because as recently as a couple years ago the support levels were significantly different. Just as important though, I think the number of people who are intensely opposed is still at least a bit larger than those who are intensely supportive. But intensity can only overcome relatively small differences in support levels.

Here’s the memo …

In view of this week’s news on the same sex marriage issue, here is a summary of recent survey findings on same sex marriage:

1. Support for same sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down. A review of public polling shows that up to 2009 support for gay marriage increased at a rate of 1% a year. Starting in 2010 the change in the level of support accelerated to 5% a year. The most recent public polling shows supporters of gay marriage outnumber opponents by a margin of roughly 10% (for instance: NBC / WSJ poll in February / March: support 49%, oppose 40%).

2. The increase in support is taking place among all partisan groups. While more Democrats support gay marriage than Republicans, support levels among Republicans are increasing over time. The same is true of age: younger people support same sex marriage more often than older people, but the trends show that all age groups are rethinking their position.

3. Polling conducted among Republicans show that majorities of Republicans and Republican leaning voters support extending basic legal protections to gays and lesbians. These include majority Republican support for:

a. Protecting gays and lesbians against being fired for reasons of sexual orientation
b. Protections against bullying and harassment
c. Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
d. Right to visit partners in hospitals
e. Protecting partners against loss of home in case of severe medical emergencies or death
f. Legal protection in some form for gay couples whether it be same sex marriage or domestic partnership (only 29% of Republicans oppose legal recognition in any form).

Recommendation: A statement reflecting recent developments on this issue along the following lines:

“People who believe in equality under the law as a fundamental principle, as I do, will agree that this principle extends to gay and lesbian couples; gay and lesbian couples should not face discrimination and their relationship should be protected under the law. People who disagree on the fundamental nature of marriage can agree, at the same time, that gays and lesbians should receive essential rights and protections such as hospital visitation, adoption rights, and health and death benefits.”

Other thoughts / Q&A: Follow up to questions about affirmative action:

“This is not about giving anyone extra protections or privileges, this is about making sure that everyone – regardless of sexual orientation – is provided the same protections against discrimination that you and I enjoy.”

Why public attitudes might be changing:

“As more people have become aware of friends and family members who are gay, attitudes have begun to shift at an accelerated pace. This is not about a generational shift in attitudes, this is about people changing their thinking as they recognize their friends and family members who are gay or lesbian.”

Conservative fundamentals:

“As people who promote personal responsibility, family values, commitment and stability, and emphasize freedom and limited government we have to recognize that freedom means freedom for everyone. This includes the freedom to decide how you live and to enter into relationships of your choosing, the freedom to live without excessive interference of the regulatory force of government.

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