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OFF TO THE RACES

Changing Times

Republicans need to think hard about their own message in light of public’s shifting attitude toward same-sex marriage.

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Marriage equality supporters Teri McClain, left, and Mary Beth Brotski stand with signs supporting President Barack Obama outside a fundraising event for the president, Thursday, May 10, 2012, in Seattle. Obama said Vice President Joe Biden got "a little bit over his skis" in publicly embracing gay marriage, forcing Obama to speed up his own plans to announce support for the right of same-sex couples to marry.   (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It’s unlikely that same-sex marriage is going to push the economy out of the dominant role in this election. Indeed, short of a major international incident, it is unlikely that any other issue will displace the economic ones. But gay marriage was the most discussed issue last week. The most remarkable thing was not President Obama’s announcement that he would embrace same-sex marriage, even if it wasn’t exactly premeditated. Instead, it was a memo from a very prominent and well-respected Republican pollster suggesting that his party should treat the issue with considerably more caution than it has in the past.

(MAP: Where Is Same-Sex Marriage Legal?)

 

Jan van Lohuizen worked for two of the three pioneers, Lance Tarrance and Bob Teeter, in Republican polling (the other was Dick Wirthlin). In 1986, van Lohuizen served as polling director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He has long been Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s pollster. He was also the principal pollster for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns and was one of the key pollsters involved in Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign. Only the most wired-in political operatives and reporters know him. That is not by accident. Van Lohuizen has always worked to keep a low profile. He doesn’t have a self-promotional bone in his body and thus is far more given to understatement than to exaggeration.

That’s why his May 11 memo to party officials is all the more remarkable. Van Lohuizen starts off by reviewing the state and direction of polling on same-sex marriage. He points out that support grew at about 1 percentage point a year up to 2009 but has “accelerated” to a 5-percentage-point growth rate since 2010, pointing to the late-February/early-March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that shows supporters outnumbering opponents by 49 percent to 40 percent. (A USA Today/Gallup poll found 50 percent saying same-sex marriages should be valid and 48 percent saying they should not). Van Lohuizen notes that support for gay marriage has increased across the board, although obviously Democrats are more supportive than Republicans. While younger voters are more supportive than older ones, he points out that “all age groups are rethinking their positions.” Van Lohuizen emphasized: “This is not about a generational shift in attitudes; this is about people changing their thinking as they recognize their friends and family members who are gay or lesbian.”

(PICTURES: Timeline of Obama's Changing Views on Same-Sex Marriage)

 

The memo argues that majorities of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters “support extending basic legal protections to gays and lesbians.” Such support includes “protecting gays and lesbians against being fired for reasons of sexual orientation; protection against bullying and harassment; repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’; right to visit partners in hospitals; protecting partners against loss of home in case of severe medical emergencies or death; legal protection in some form for gay couples whether it be same-sex marriage or domestic partnership (only 29 percent of Republicans oppose legal recognition in any form).”

Van Lohuizen urges GOP candidates to understand that “people who believe in equality under the law as a fundamental principle, as I do, will agree that this principle extends to gay and lesbian couples; gay and lesbian couples should not face discrimination, and their relationship should be protected under the law. People who disagree on the fundamental nature of marriage can agree, at the same time, that gays and lesbians should receive essential rights and protections, such as hospital visitation, adoption rights, and health and death benefits.”

Going further, van Lohuizen argues, “This is not about giving anyone extra protections or privileges; this is about making sure that everyone—regardless of sexual orientation—is provided the same protections against discrimination that you and I enjoy.”

He goes on to say that this is consistent with conservative principles: “As people who promote personal responsibility, family values, commitment, and stability, and emphasize freedom and limited government, we have to recognize that freedom means freedom for everyone. This includes the freedom to decide how you live and to enter into relationships of your choosing, the freedom to decide how you live without excessive interference of the regulatory force of government.”

 

The pollster is not arguing morality or public policy. He is, however, suggesting his party recognize that it has staked out positions on this constellation of issues that fly in the face of rather rapidly changing public attitudes. Not unlike warnings from other strategists about Republican positions and rhetoric that have hurt them badly with the growing Latino vote, the GOP here risks being on the wrong side of an issue where the world is moving in a different way.

To be sure, political parties are not supposed to be weather vanes, changing whenever the wind  blows in a new direction. When they choose to fly in the face of evolving public attitudes, though, they need to think about it long and hard; they need to decide if it’s really worth it and consider that times might have changed.

This article appears in the May 15, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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