Why Republicans Won't Flip on Gay Marriage

Protesting gay marriage outside the U.S. Supreme Court Photograph by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

There may be no one in the country with a more thorough and granular knowledge of the electorate than Jim Messina, President Obama’s data-obsessed campaign manager. Earlier this week, Messina dropped by Bloomberg’s Washington office to talk about his latest endeavor, Organizing for Action, and also shared his thoughts on the topic dominating the week’s news: the Supreme Court case on legalizing gay marriage.

Messina first made clear that Obama’s support for gay marriage had been a net positive in the 2012 election. In the 2008 election, which was dominated by other issues, he said, “I think we neutralized it.” But the rapid shift in public opinion—from 37 percent support in 2004 to 58 percent support today—made it an outright advantage last November. “It was helpful,” Messina said. “I think it’s part of why we got a bigger youth turnout.” He added that marriage equality has become a litmus-test issue for any Democrat seeking the White House. “You won’t see any Democratic presidential candidate not support [it].”

Next, he identified the Republicans’ dilemma and how they might respond to the issue going forward. On one hand, 81 percent of young voters, including Republicans, now support gay marriage. “In the old days,” he said, “Republicans always wanted, especially in red states, to fight about gays and guns, right? Now they’re on the wrong side on both of those issues and are having problems.”

But Messina doesn’t believe these problems portend a flip to support for gay marriage, at least not for 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls. He bases this belief on the attitudes of Republican primary voters, which increasingly diverge from those of other Americans. The change in public opinion will force an accommodation, he predicts, but one that stops short of endorsing marriage equality. “Given who their primary electorate is and given the fact that the ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 60 percent of older Republican primary voters still oppose it,” he said, “I think you will see people talk less about it. But I don’t think they’re showing any signs of moderating.”

Messina’s analysis runs counter to what many Republican strategists in Washington are telling reporters—that the GOP will have to evolve on the issue, as Democrats have done. But this may be wishful thinking on the part of elite Republicans. The Republican consultant class has always been more comfortable with gay rights than the party’s base. In fact, for years, an open secret in Washington was the sizable percentage of Republican consultants who were themselves gay. Some of the those consultants have come out and begun speaking up, most notably Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.

There remains a split within the Republican Party between the secular consultant class and the social conservatives who make up a healthy portion of the party’s base. As Messina pointed out, recent history suggests that the base will prevail, even at the cost of harming the party’s electoral prospects. “Just think about immigration,” he said. “They knew they had to get the voters in the general election in Colorado, in Nevada, and yet still the one defining issue in the Republican primary was [opposition to] immigration reform. That’s what Romney used to knock Gingrich down. It’s what he used to go after Perry, even though that was completely antithetical to their general election chances. And so, I don’t see them moderating on that issue.”

Still, as the issue of immigration has shown, Republicans cannot remain impervious to changes in public opinion. At least, not indefinitely. A serious GOP presidential contender who supports gay marriage may not emerge before 2016. But that makes it more likely that Republicans will have to grapple with the issue before the 2020 or 2024 elections, just as they are doing with immigration reform today.

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