Split: Heavy majority of tea partiers opposes gay marriage, plurality of rest of GOP supports

A fine little illustration of the divide between the Republican base and many of those who purport to represent them in Washington, in the media, and in fundraising corridors. Consider this a follow-up to the two polls that Noah and I flagged for you last month, one from Marist suggesting that GOP primary voters(!) had started to warm to gay marriage and one from CNN showing overall Republican support for SSM creeping up above the 40 percent mark.

The good news for social cons in today’s WSJ/NBC poll: The Marist data on primary voters is probably wrong. Marist asked likely Republican voters whether candidates who oppose gay marriage are acceptable to them and found, surprisingly, more than 50 percent in some early primary states saying unacceptable. Since when does criticism of gay marriage count against Republicans in a primary? That seemed like a big deal. Per WSJ/NBC, though, it’s probably just an outlier:

Support for gay marriage has risen to an all-time high in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, reinforcing it as one of the fastest-moving changes in social attitudes of this generation.

The new survey found that 59% of Americans support allowing same-sex marriage, nearly double the 30% support reported in 2004…

However, the issue still poses some risk to GOP candidates facing a spirited presidential primary. Among core Republican voters — the party’s most committed followers — opposition is far stronger, with only 29% saying they support gay marriage.

When Republican primary voters were asked in the new survey how their view of candidates would be affected by support for gay marriage, 50% said it would make them less favorable to candidates, 19% said it would make them more favorable.

Supporting SSM is still a major loser in a GOP primary, as everyone thought, which is why no one among the GOP’s eight thousand 2016 candidates is willing to go further than “I’m personally opposed but let’s let the states decide.” Like Scott Shackford says, the way Marist worded its question may have confused Republican voters who thought they were being asked whether it’d be acceptable for a candidate to support, not oppose, gay marriage. The GOP base is still very much against nontraditional marriage.

But what about the rest of the party?

Most GOP primary voters are not on board with allowing same-sex marriage, with 40 percent favoring it and 53 percent opposing it. But there’s a major difference between Republicans who identify with the Tea Party (24 percent favor/64 percent oppose) and those who don’t (49 percent favor/47 percent oppose.)

So there’s another poll, a la CNN’s last month, showing overall GOP support at 40 percent. At least two other major polls taken over the past 12 months have pegged Republican backing of SSM at similar levels, 41 percent in an NYT survey from last September and 39 percent in a Pew poll from last spring. The 40 percent threshold seems legit, which makes me wonder how much longer it’ll be before so many non-tea-party GOPers back gay marriage that the party itself is evenly divided or even slightly pro-SSM. WSJ/NBC found a huge 13-point jump in Republican support in just the last two years; what happens to the fencesitters among centrist Republicans who are mildly opposed to gay marriage right now once the Roberts Court ends up formally legalizing gay marriage this summer?

Most polls don’t drill down to how the numbers divide among tea partiers and more centrist Republicans, but after today’s finding, I bet more will. If conservatives are reliably at 20-30 percent support and the party as a whole is now reliably at 40 percent support, center-righties must already be reliably at or above the break-even point of 50 percent. As you see above, WSJ/NBC has it at 49/47 today and that’s with virtually zero current Republican officeholders willing to nudge them by going on the record in favor. (The only major exception I can think of offhand is Rob Portman.) Makes me think that rumors of Jeb Bush’s “evolution” on gay marriage could be even more significant than we think in potentially influencing the party. If Jeb, following his “screw the right, please the center” primary strategy, makes some sort of bold move on SSM, the center-righties who are invested in his candidacy may feel obliged to follow, whether to give him cover or because they quietly support legalizing gay marriage too. That could shake loose a bunch of Republican fencesitters, tipping them into the pro-SSM camp. Early signs from Team Jeb suggest he won’t do that: Bush’s new campaign manager, who’s endorsed court challenges to legalize SSM before, conspicuously declined to join the latest amicus brief from centrist Republicans advocating for legal gay marriage. Smart play, as Jeb already has enough issues with the right that he doesn’t need to cross them on a core “values” issue too. But who knows? With overall public support now near 60 percent and likely to rise further after SCOTUS rules, maybe Jeb is more worried about Hillary using this as a wedge against him in the general than tea partiers having one extra reason to dislike a guy they already dislike. Can the party hang together with someone at the top of the ticket who opposes the base on this, though? That’s the significance of today’s numbers.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on February 02, 2023