Bit by bit, opposition to same-sex marriage is vanishing — a trend particularly noticeable in the nation’s most conservative corners. An ABC News/Washington Post poll published last week shows that 52% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters under 50 now support gay marriage, as do 81% of Republicans under 30.
And it’s not just public opinion that’s changing: recent weeks have seen a growing number of Republican legislators announce their support for same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) reversed his anti gay marriage stance after his son came out, and as of February, Minnesota state senator Branden Petersen plans to co-sponsor a bill that would legalize gay marriage in his state.
Some Republicans are also turning their energy to the Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8, California’s infamous gay marriage ban. This week, Theodore Olson — former Reagan advisor and assistant attorney general to George W. Bush — will argue before the Court in favor of overturning Prop 8 (Olson is one of a small faction of Republicans who have historically supported gay marriage. In 2009, a year after Prop 8 passed, he declared that it was “utterly without justification” and “could involve the rights and happiness and equal treatment of millions of people”). His argument is accompanied by an amicus brief, signed by more than 130 prominent Republicans, supporting marriage equality.
In 2008, just 23% of Republicans supported same-sex marriage, and at the 2012 Republican Convention — just last August — the GOP ratified a platform that called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and declared its support for the notoriously anti-gay Boy Scouts of America.
“We believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman, must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage,” the platform stated.
But departing from the traditional Republican line is pragmatic for the GOP’s survival. As of Election Day 2012, three new states legalized gay marriage, and Minnesota voted down a constitutional marriage amendment. In light of these decisions, more conservatives recognize a need for moderation within the party. This is especially urgent as more young voters come of age: in many ways, conservative opposition to gay rights is more generational than partisan.
“Younger people who consider themselves conservatives just don’t care,” says public policy professor Craig Rimmerman. “These younger conservatives are more concerned with the state of the economy and whether they are going to have a job when they come out of school.”
Conservative analyst Margaret Hoover also notes that Republican support for same-sex marriage represents “a conservatism that unapologetically applies the principle of individual freedom consistently to both fiscal and social policy.”
If conservative attitudes on gay marriage continue to shift as quickly as they have, marriage equality nationwide may well be on the horizon. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus voiced his own support after Portman’s announcement. “I think it’s about being decent,” Priebus told reporters. “It’s about dignity and respect, that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished.”