Articles and Analysis


Young Voters and Social Conservatism

In today's Daily Beast the daughter of Sen. John McCain, Meghan McCain, wrote about the need for "a gayer GOP" in order to expand the Republican Party's hopes of winning back a majority coalition and in particular in order to appeal to young voters.

I recently completed research on the topic of young voters and the GOP: where the Republican Party is losing young voters, how serious the threat is to the party, and how the Republican Party should respond. And on this point, Ms. McCain has it right - the issue of gay marriage is one on which young voters and the Republican Party diverge significantly.

Yet this is not to say that a Republican Party that embraces socially conservative policy stances is unsustainable; indeed, on some issues, such as abortion, young voters have beliefs similar to those of voters overall. When pressed in the 2008 General Social Survey with the question "Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason", 41.6% of those 18-34 said "yes" as did 41.2% of respondents overall - hardly a distinction. The GSS also asks about six particular instances in which a woman may seek an abortion; on all six instances, roughly equivalent numbers of those 18-34 supported a woman's right to obtain an abortion in each instance as did respondents overall.

Yet issues relating to homosexuality find vast differences between the young and older voters. In terms of the issue of whether or not homosexual sex is wrong, 44.3% of respondents to the General Social Survey 18-34 believe it is "never wrong" compared to 33.5% of respondents overall. Furthermore, 47.3% of respondents 18-34 said homosexual sex was "always wrong" compared to 55.6% of respondents overall. A Harvard Institute of Politics study in Spring of 2008 of 18-24 year olds also corroborated the findings that young voters are more tolerant concerning homosexuality; when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong", 50% disagreed while 30% agreed and 20% neither agreed nor disagreed.

On the issue of homosexual marriage the distinction is even greater. Some 39.3% of respondents in the 2008 GSS said that they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that homosexuals should have the right to marry. That number soared to 53.4% among those 18-34, with one out of four in that age group strongly agreeing. As one looks at each age group, as age increases so too does opposition to marriage for homosexuals.

To be sure, not all Democrats are supportive of gay marriage or homosexuality. Some 48% of those who identified as "strong Democrats" said that homosexual sex was "always wrong" as did 50.7% of Democrats overall. Furthermore, while support for gay marriage is more common among Democrats, 38.1% of Democrats do not believe that homosexuals should have the right to get married.

Yet regardless of how narrow or wide the chasm is between the two parties is on the issue, the differences between the beliefs of young voters and the beliefs of the older segments of the electorate - particularly the modern day Republican electorate - are significant.

While these numbers don't necessarily shed light on why it is specifically that younger Americans are more accepting of homosexuality or why they are less opposed to gay marriage, one can think of a number of reasons why this may be the case. When looking at a generation that has grown up with Ellen DeGeneres and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" as normal fixtures on the television set, it isn't hard to imagine why younger voters are more accepting of homosexual behavior.

This is not to further imply that a change in position on gay marriage would mean droves of young voters signing up for the GOP. A number of other factors have to come into play, not the least of which is how important gay marriage is relative to other important political issues in the minds of these voters. As I'll discuss in future columns, the Republican Party may have much bigger problems on its hands than the perception that it is out of touch with young voters on the issue of gay marriage.

Yet whether the Republican Party amends its actual policy stance on gay marriage or whether it simply makes efforts to be more tolerant and inclusive of homosexuals generally, the Republican Party cannot ignore the vast differences in public opinion between young and old voters on the issue. This difference certainly presents a serious challenge to the party's long-term ability to swell its ranks among young voters. In the words of Dr. Morris Fiorina and his co-authors in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America (p. 124), "If the commandants on the 'orthodox' side hope to win a culture war over homosexuality, they had better do it soon - their potential ranks are being thinned by mortality."



I'm not sure one should so flippantly attribute young peoples' support of gay marriage to just television. For example, Queer Eye certainly raised the profile of the issue, but it is not really more likely to encourage empathy than enforce stereotypes or alienation. (All in the Family sometimes did the same for race relations.) While there is probably some positive feedback here - media coverage amplifies existing effects - it's a different matter to show that media is the causal force.
It is probably just as likely that the causal force is that more young people have grown up with the concepts of a natural sexual continuum and the statistic of something near 1:10 people being homosexual.


Kristen Soltis:


Agreed - the use of "Queer Eye" and Ellen were not my proposed causes for changes in belief among younger voters as compared to older voters, it was merely intended to serve as an anecdote about the increased normalcy with which homosexuality is treated in our modern culture. I'd hardly assert that Carson Kressley's advice to men about what jeans to buy has had a dramatic impact on political views about gay marriage, so don't worry, I certainly take your point!

What I would like is additional data in future surveys about how different generations have been exposed to or have interacted personally with the issue. At one point in time the GSS asked questions regarding whether or not you knew anyone who was homosexual, whether or not someone in your family was, etc. I wish that had been asked in the 2008 study; perhaps we can hope that it will come up again.


I totally disagree with the idea that a more gay friendly GOP will make a difference, or that it is even possible. Gay marriage is a symptom of what is wrong with the GOP, not a cause of why young people like me want nothing to do with it.

About 60% of republicans are evangelicals, so alienating them in an attempt to win over the youth vote probably will not happen anytime soon. So I don't even know if it is realistic.

Polls have shown people under 30 consider the democrats more in line with their values on everything, not just gay rights. Energy, science, minority rights, foreing policy, civil rights, Iraq, taxes, healthcare, economics, etc. The democratic party enjoys comfortable margins with people under 30 on almost every issue.

Faking like they are tolerant of gays is not going to help the GOP win over young people. In the age of youtube, we will be able to see through that. Besides, after 8 years of trampling the constitution and becoming more and more authoritarian does anyone expect us to believe on a dime that the GOP cares about individual liberty? Listening to us and sharing our values (respect for science and the environment, egalitarianism, compassion, concern for global problems, a competent federal government that works with us to solve our problems) will win us over, but I don't see them doing that anytime soon. As moderates abandon the GOP, they will become more and more of a reactionary, plutocratic nationalist party, and even less appealing to young voters.

One thing to remember about Meghan McCain is she voted for Kerry in 2004. Who knows who she would've voted for in 2008 had her father not been on the ticket.



There's a very simple fundamental reason why voters under the age of 30 are trending strongly Democratic. We've only really known two presidents, one a Democrat who presided over a wonderful economy and faced constant partisan attacks from Republicans, and one a Republican who left the economy in a shambles and launched us into a messy, unresolved, unpopular war. If you are 30 years old today, you were about 14 and most likely not interested in politics when Bush I left office, so Clinton and Bush II are the only two presidents you've really been aware of. And now President Barack Obama almost can't help being a positive contrast to Bush II, further locking in the comparisons of competent Democrats and partisan Republicans. The issues the GOP faces in trying to attract younger voters are much deeper than just gay identity politics. They need to find a way to convince people outside their Confederate bastion that they can run a government, after twenty years of demonstrating otherwise.


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.