Freedom to Marry's Changed Political Equation

This piece by Evan Wolfson was originally published by The Hill on July 27, 2011. You can read the full piece here.

That change of heart on Capitol Hill is reflective of the journey the majority of Americans have made as minds have changed and hearts have opened. Fifteen years ago, only 27 percent of Americans approved of ending discrimination in marriage. Today, six national polls confirm that support has doubled to 53%, a national majority in favor of the freedom to marry.  

Members of Congress might have taken note that gay couples have been marrying in our Nation’s capital for more than a year now, without using up the marriage licenses, and the sky has not fallen. But when New York ended gay couples’ exclusion from marriage on this past joyous Sunday, the number of Americans living in a state where gay people share in the freedom to marry more than doubled, to 35 million. The momentum in favor of fairness will only grow and accelerate, as New York gives more and more Americans a powerful chance to see that ending the denial of marriage helps families while hurting no one.  

The freedom to marry reflects basic values of love, commitment, family, and fairness—and that’s what has inspired a majority of Americans and their elected representatives to decide to support it. And, happily, support for the freedom to marry is not only the right thing to do, it’s the politically smart thing to do.

Today at the National Press Club, Republican Jan van Lohuizen, President George W. Bush’s former pollster, and Democrat Joel Benenson, President Obama’s pollster, jointly released a new bipartisan analysis of the latest polling on marriage entitled, “Rapid Increase in Support for Marriage Changes Political Equation: Emerging Majority Supports the Freedom to Marry.” The results challenge the conventional Washington wisdom on marriage.

Too many Washington politicians have been clinging to a 1996 mindset, which held that marriage is a hot button: a useful wedge for politicians who would pit Americans against each other to win votes—and an untouchable “third rail” for fair-minded politicians who in their heart support freedom and equality under the law for everyone.

But today, the wedge has lost its edge, and that third rail can actually be used to appeal to important groups of voters, as New York demonstrated.

Those who would now try to tout their anti-gay opposition to motivate narrow segments of voters will find that group of voters dwindling—and will quickly learn that anti-gay politics may turn off a vast voter pool on the other side that rejects division and discrimination. According to polling by the Washington Post, “strong” opposition to the freedom to marry dropped 13 points since 2004—and “strong” support in favor has risen 12 points. Whereas just a few years ago the opposition to the freedom to marry had greater intensity, now the numbers of those who support the freedom to marry outnumber those who strongly oppose it.

One of the major drivers of this momentum shift is a generational tidal wave. Almost 70 percent of those under 40 support the freedom to marry. Every day, as more and more young people come of age and enter the voting population, support will only increase. 

This generational dynamic has not gone unnoticed—but many probably don’t realize just how fast it will push the country toward overwhelming support for the freedom to marry. Right now, those under 40 represent roughly 36 percent of the electorate. By the 2016 Presidential election cycle they will make up roughly 47 percent of voters—and roughly 57 percent by 2020. Politicians looking to the future would be wise to get ahead of this rapid rise. 

But this change is not just driven by young people. Voters across the board are rethinking their position. In the past seven years, support has increased by 13 percent among Independents and 15 percent among seniors. 

Support has also increased eight percent among Republicans. This bipartisan rise is also bearing out in practice. It was Republican State Senators who provided the winning margin to achieve the freedom to marry in New York—the first time a Republican-led legislative chamber voted for a marriage bill. The center of political gravity has moved, for good. 

With fair-minded Americans across the spectrum rethinking their position—and deciding that love and commitment deserve protection, not discrimination—Republicans and Democrats alike would be wise to understand the changed political equation and get on the right side, not just of history, but of politics.