WASHINGTON, April 7, 2013 — When a political party loses the national popular vote in five of six presidential elections, as the GOP has, there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and overcorrect.
We see it from Republicans who view the reemergence of the gay marriage debate as an opportunity for the party of endorse same-sex marriage. It could open up more fundraising opportunities from pro-gay marriage GOP donors in New York, California, and Florida. It can help Republicans begin the process of appealing to young voters, 81 percent of whom support gay marriage. So the thinking goes.
But alienating social conservatives in an effort to raise money and appeal to young voters is a flawed political strategy.
Evangelical voters are indispensable to the success of any Republican presidential candidate in a primary or general election. In the 2012 Republican primaries, 51 percent of the voters were self-identified born-again evangelicals. In the general election, 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney.
If the Republican Party formally endorses gay marriage, it will lose its base.
It has become conventional wisdom that the GOP is getting older, and whiter, and must appeal to young voters and minorities in order to win presidential elections. But the next presidential election is not until 2016. Midterm elections are in 2014.
So why alienate the evangelical base, which you will need in 2014, in an attempt to appeal to young voters you do not need until 2016?
The GOP needs a bigger tent. Substituting social conservatives for young voters, however, does not widen the tent, it keeps the size of the tent the same, with a different coalition.
Beyond that, supporting gay marriage is not the only way to win over young people. Passing comprehensive immigration reform will help. A foreign policy of restraint, not nation-building, will be appealing to young voters. So will a booming economy with well-paying jobs.
Other Republicans also worry that the party will be perceived as “anti-gay.” It is no longer fashionable these days to suggest that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Opponents of gay marriage are now seen as bigots, or backward-thinking Jesus freaks. Bill O’Reilly calls them Bible-thumpers.
But there are ways to dispel that negative image without endorsing gay marriage. Was President Obama a bigot when he advocated for traditional marriage? No. Neither was Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat who was against same-sex marriage before they became for it. Put it that way to voters.
The GOP Establishment can still keep traditional marriage in the party platform, and at the same time remain tolerant of supporters of same-sex marriage within the party. Embrace Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rob Portman (R-OH), and every other Republican in the West or Northeast that supports gay marriage. Have an attitude of “there is more that unites us than divides us.” It will show voters that the GOP is still welcoming to people they may disagree with on a particular issue.
Social conservatives are a big part of the Republican base. The GOP cannot win without them.
Ayobami Olugbemiga is a graduate student in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
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