Young Voters and Social Conservatism

04/13/2009 03:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

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."