Republicans for marriage equality? Maine and beyond

With Mainers to vote on whether to allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses in November 2012, a group of Maine Republicans has stepped forward to announce their support.  Some changed their minds and were greeted with a certain consternation or at least apprehension from their fellow partisans.

How does this relate to national dynamics?

The national Republican party includes many strong social conservatives. Particularly since 1980, the religious right has been a solid element of the Republican coalition.  Nationally, many Republican politicians have supported — and continue to support —  restrictions on gay rights, abortion and even birth control.

However, the Republican party has long included a libertarian strand and those Republicans have supported (some degree of) equal rights for gay and lesbian people.  For instance, Senator (and 1964 presidential nominee) Barry Goldwater, said of military service, “Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar” and “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.”

Also moderate Republicans — like Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — have been relatively supportive of gay rights, both as concerns service in the military and marriage.  In 2006. both voted against proceeding to a vote on a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and woman. More recently, both supported ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). There are fewer moderate Republicans than before, but they are still part of the party.

Republicans have became more supportive of gay rights. On gays and lesbians in military service, Republicans shifted from a strongly anti-gay stance to, by May 2010, 60% support for repealing DADT.

But what about marriage equality?

National data show that, as public opinion has shifted on marriage, Republicans have not changed very much.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage has moved a great deal. Now national polls find over 50% support.  Much of that change comes from younger age groups and there are clear differences by different generations. If one looks at particular age groups over time, it’s clear that opinion within age groups has also changed and has become more supportive of marriage equality.

But the partisan patterns — at least in national polls — show much greater change among Democrats and independents than Republicans.

Take, for example, these data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In these national data, Republican support for same-sex marriage has gone up a bit, but much less than other partisan groups.

Gallup, in comparing 2010 and 2011 attitudes found:

While big majorities of Democrats and young people support the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage, fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans and older Americans agree. Republicans in particular seem fixed in their opinions; there was no change at all in their support level this year, while independents’ and Democrats’ support jumped by double-digit margins.

In other words, both Pew and Gallup found that, nationally, Republicans’ views were very stable and, as a whole, opposed marriage for gays and lesbians.

Does this mean that Maine Republicans are also stable in their opposition?

On the one hand, Maine Republicans are more socially moderate than the national party. While there is a segment of the party made up of social conservatives, whose views are based in religion, it doesn’t define the Maine Republican party to the same extent.

Furthermore, young Maine Republicans are likely to have more socially moderate views. While this is purely anecdotal, I can recall a debate a few years ago between UMaine College Republicans and Democrats. They disagreed on almost everything — except for marriage equality.  Both supported it.

On the other hand, a recent Critical Insights poll, which found that 57% of Mainers supported same-sex marriage, discovered support for this position from 77% of Democrats, 63% of independents/unenrolleds, and 30% of Republicans.

Thus Maine Republicans support marriage equality more than Republicans in the nation overall. And, while some have changed their views, most still oppose it in 2012.

A few final notes:

One, to some extent, one should be wary of comparing views by party from year to year. People can leave or decide to identify with a political party, so these are not exactly the same people. (See Gallup data on shifts in partisan identification, 1988-2011.) However, looking at partisan patterns on marriage equality gives one a rough sense of the political dynamics of the issue.

Two, I expect to see additional shifts in the coming years.  One driver will be generational change, as today’s young Republicans get older and constitute a larger share of the party. With DADT, Republicans as a group moved on gay rights and the same is likely on marriage.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.