Polling indicates that there’s a generational divide on the divisive issue
On a recent Thursday evening, roughly 50 people gathered at Shamrocks bar in St. Paul to discuss the looming ballot campaign to ban gay marriage. The event was specifically targeted at young Republicans and featured GOP Reps. John Kriesel and Tim Kelly, outspoken opponents of the proposed anti-gay marriage amendment. The event was slated to break up at 7 p.m., but conversations continued well past that time.
“The idea really was to give people an opportunity just to talk about it,” said Jake Loesch, who helped organized the gathering, speaking from his office at Minnesotans United for All Families, the principal organization opposing the marriage amendment. “For a lot of conservatives, they may be uncomfortable coming into this office or other events where there may be more DFL members. Sometimes it’s easier to talk when you’re with people that you can relate to a little more.”
If opponents of the gay marriage ban are going to succeed, wooing young Republicans will likely prove a key part of their strategy. That’s because polling consistently suggests that support for same-sex marriage — particularly among younger voters — is rapidly growing. In a national Pew Research Center poll released last month, 46 percent of respondents indicated support for gay marriage, while 44 percent opposed it. Just five years earlier opposition to gay marriage prevailed by a robust 56-35 percent margin.
There’s also a pronounced generational divide that consistently shows up in polling data. A survey released in August by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed a 30-point gap in support among the oldest and youngest respondents. Among individuals under 30, 62 percent indicated support for same-sex marriage, while just 31 percent of those over age 65 responded similarly.
The numbers are no less compelling among respondents who identified at Republicans. Overall just 31 percent of Republicans surveyed indicated support for gay marriage. But among those respondents under the age of 30, that figure swelled to 49 percent. The generational shift is even apparent among white evangelicals, the subset of respondents least likely to back same-sex nuptials, according to the PRRI survey. Overall less than 20 percent of white evangelical respondents indicated support for gay marriage. But among those respondents under the age of 30, support ballooned to 44 percent.
“Millennials [Americans age 18 to 29] are at the vanguard of the shift that is occurring on attitudes about gay and lesbian people and homosexuality,” the PRRI study concludes. “It is difficult to find another issue on which there is deeper generational disagreement than on the issue of homosexuality and rights for gay and lesbian people.”
Other anecdotal signs also point to a shift, says Dale Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. Carpenter, a Republican, has been vocal in opposing the marriage amendment and serves as treasurer of Minnesotans United for All Families. He is also the faculty adviser for both OutLaw, the law school’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender student association, and its chapter of the conservative Federalist Society. Carpenter says that even members of the latter group are opposed to banning gay marriage.
“I see a pronounced support for same-sex marriage in that group,” Carpenter said. “These are the future leaders of the party and prominent Republican lawyers and judges. This is a matter of time.”
At the close of this year’s legislative session, Republicans voted to put the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot in 2012. But as the debate at the Capitol showed, the GOP caucuses were hardly united on the issue. While Kriesel and Kelly were the most vocal about their opposition, many other legislators were rumored to be nervous about pushing such a divisive social issue, especially when the state was facing a $5 billion budget deficit. But the legislation cleared both chambers, setting up a high-profile battle for 2012.
Same-sex marriage supporters hope to defeat such an initiative for just the second time in more than two dozen tries across the U.S. (In 2006 Arizona voters defeated an amendment prohibiting gay marriage but passed it two years later.)
Loesch and other young Republicans could play a crucial role. The 23-year-old previously worked as a legislative assistant to GOP Sen. Michelle Benson. His resume also includes a stint doing fieldwork for the state Republican Party and serving as executive director of the Minnesota College Republicans. But last month he signed on to work as deputy director of communications for Minnesotans United for All Families.
Loesch argues that opposing the gay marriage amendment is consistent with Republican principles.
“Being opposed to this amendment — or being pro-marriage equality in general — has a natural fit within the GOP’s ideals of limited government and freedom and personal responsibility,” Loesch said. “The Constitution should treat everyone equally. This amendment would do just the polar opposite of that.”
Loesch believes, however, that differences between older and younger Republicans on the issue of gay marriage can be overblown. “I don’t doubt the premise that there [are] more young Republicans in my generation who are going to be opposed to this amendment,” he said. “But I also think that there’s a fairly silent group of older conservatives … who agree as well with us, but they probably just don’t speak about it as much.”
Madeline Koch was another of the GOP organizers of the Shamrocks event for young Republicans. The 24-year-old has worked in the office of former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and on the staff of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. But Koch sees the gay marriage issue in terms shared by many on the left, as a basic civil rights and equality issue. “For me, I don’t think it’s a matter of being a Republican or a Democrat,” Koch said. “For a lot of Republicans that I know in my generation, it’s a nonissue.”
Tyler Verry is a former chairman of the Minnesota College Republicans. He says that he regrets not passing a resolution supporting gay marriage while he was in the post and that there was ample support for such a measure. “I feel like this issue is kind of alienating this new generation of Republicans,” Verry said. “I actually know quite a few gay Republicans that refuse to come to College Republican meetings because they think everyone there hates them.”
In recent years gay marriage ballot initiatives have been widely credited with galvanizing conservatives to turn out at the polls. With crucial elections in 2012 that will feature the presidential contest and all 201 state legislative seats, Verry is concerned that the ballot initiative could have the opposite effect on the electorate.
“I see it as energizing the opposing party’s base to come out and vote against us,” Verry said. “I know why they did it, but I don’t think they quite thought it through.”