In the wake Barack Obama’s resounding victory on a socially liberal line and the unprecedented success of gay marriage in the referenda in Maine and Maryland, we’re going to hear calls for the abandonment of social issues. As a Christian, I do not think ceaseless talk about homosexuality is the best way to spread the gospel of love. As a citizen, I view a culture of divorce as a greater problem for the common good. If I had my bones, I would have socially conservative candidates act like Robert McDonnell in his race for Virginia’s governorship: Hold the line, but do not rhetorically escalate. Quietly move forward a culture of life.
That said, abandoning social issues will do no great favors for the Republican party. As I’ve said before, the General Social Survey shows that young voters—who through the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s were the most pro-choice cohort—became the most pro-life cohort around the year 2000 (even more pro-life than senior citizens). This difference in opinion is massively amplified by an “intensity gap” between pro-life and pro-choice young people. A 2012 NARAL survey found that 51 percent of pro-life voters age 30 or younger feel abortion is a very important issue in determining their vote while only 26 percent of their pro-choice peers feel the same way. Pro-life young people not only outnumber pro-choice young people in aboslute terms, they overwhelm two-to-one in terms of commitment to the issue, a result so depressing for pro-choice activists that it prompted Nancy Keenan, NARAL’s head, to resign.
The winds are blowing in a different direction on same-sex marriage, to be sure: 37 percent of young Republicans favor gay marriage, up from 28 percent eight years ago (yet still far below the 63 percent support among young people in general). The headline numbers do not tell the full story. At least before yesterday, same-sex marriage historically receives less support—about seven points less—at the ballot box than on opinion polls because voters who oppose same-sex marriage are reluctant to admit their opposition to an interviewer. But is support for same-sex marriage uniformly overstated? If respondents lie because they feel social pressure to support same-sex marriage, those who feel the most social pressure (i.e., young people) are likely to be the cohort in which support is most radically overstated. Same-sex marriage proponents have learned to mistrust opinion polls, but have failed to absorb the lesson that polls of young people are likely to be the least reliable of all.
Gay marriage has its own intensity gap, a fact that underlines how polls systematically overstate same-sex marriage support. An ABC/Langer Research Associates poll found that 65 percent of conservatives reacted in a strongly unfavorable way to Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement while only 52 percent of Democrats responded in a strongly favorable way. Some of those Democrats just don’t feel strongly about the issue; others are the people who really disagree with Obama but won’t admit as much to pollsters. The 13-point difference reflects a basic imbalance in the debate: opposition to same-sex marriage is much firmer than support for it, and proponents are going to have an increasingly difficult time converting those who have held out this long. The hope that a national debate on same-sex marriage will inevitably advance its cause is also cast into doubt by the fact that during campaigns on same-sex marriage questions, we haven’t seen a net shift in opinion one way or the other. In short, we should not be surprised to see the increase in youth support stop when the issue leaves the headlines (or when young people move off campuses and into the suburbs where there is less social pressure in favor of the elite consensus).
As per usual, the inevitable calls to abandon social issues will have more to do with the preferences of individual pundits than a sober reading of the facts.
Update: Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, posts a chart at National Review showing that social issues, “ran better than the GOP headliner in the eight states listed, with the exception of Florida.”