Tim Pearce, 24, believes in smaller government, fewer regulations, localized government, and gun rights, but he can’t get behind the Republican Party.
In 2008, living in Kentucky, he voted for both Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell. He’s not happy with either of them. These days, when people ask his political orientation, he says he’s an independent.
“The economic foundations of the Republican ideal are much more in tune with what I think works,” he told msnbc.com, but he can’t get behind a party that doesn’t support gay marriage.
Pearce is frustrated by the party’s ‘agree to disagree’ mantra on the issue.
“You can adjust your life back and forth to how the tax code affects you or whether or not a health care law happens,” he said. “But if you’re not allowed to marry who you want to marry, I don’t know how you’re going to overlook that.”
Leading up to the 2012 election, singer Kelly Clarkson told reporters she’s a “Republican at heart,” but said she “can’t support Romney’s policies as I have a lot of gay friends and I don’t think it’s fair they can’t get married."
Pearce and Clarkson are not alone. The party’s position on gay marriage appears to be loosening for some party leaders (exhibit Sen. Rob Portman), and especially among younger voters.
Supporting gay marriage “would open the door for me—and a lot of people—to take a second look at a lot of their candidates,” Pearce said.
While 58% of Americans believe gay marriage should be legal, that number jumps to 81% for those under 30, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. For Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under 50, 52% said they believe gay marriage should be legal, which is up from 37% a little less than a decade ago. While older conservatives remain mostly against gay marriage, even the older segment of the GOP is increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage, the poll found.
“Support for same-sex marriage within the GOP is growing,” said Liz Mair, former Republican National Convention communication director and member of the pro-gay marriage GOP coalition, GOProud. “Most Republicans I know who support the freedom to marry have fairly strong feelings about it.”
Supporting gay marriage could help grow the party, Mair said, particularly among party members under 50 and within the libertarian-leaning portion of the party.
“The polling certainly indicates that it would be politically advantageous, particularly insofar as this is a gateway issue for a lot of voters, especially younger voters that the GOP could do with bringing onside and firmly into the coalition now,” she said, echoing an idea the RNC’s autopsy report mentioned when they wrote that “for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”
‘We’ve Reached The Tipping Point’
At this year’s CPAC, GOProud was banned from being an official sponsor, but it rented space in the same building anyway and hosted a panel on increasing tolerance within the party.
“People were being turned away because there wasn’t enough room. People were standing all around the sides, in the back, and behind the panelists just trying to be get in and be a part of that,” recalled GOProud co-founder Jimmy LaSalvia.
Buzzfeed juxtaposed a photo of the crowded panel with an image of CPAC’s empty panel on social values just an hour earlier, declaring “at CPAC, the marriage fight is over.”
“That visual has been burned in my head, because it is such a vivid illustration of where we’re at on this issue,” LaSalvia said. “We’ve reached the tipping point.”
Within the GOP, a number of national names have started to buck the party on gay marriage. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, announced earlier this month that he supported marriage equality, Jon Huntsman penned a column declaring “marriage equality is a conservative cause” last week, and 75 Republicans petitioned the Supreme Court in favor of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.
“The Republican Party is leaving voters on the table by not supporting the freedom to marry,” says Tyler Deaton, 27, campaign manager for Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. Deaton is a gay Republican. Supporting gay marriage, he insists, “is more of an asset than a liability” for his party.
Gay voters made of 5% of the 2012 electorate and voted in such strong numbers for Obama (three to one) that it was enough to have swung the election, according to a study by UCLA’s School of Law in conjunction with Gallup. Republican consultants and fundraisers have already started eyeing the untapped pockets of conservative gay rights advocates.
LaSalvia also believes marriage equality would bring many more independent voters into the party. “This is an issue that cuts across every demographic, that’s what makes it so powerful,” LaSalvia said. “All politics are personal and this is personal for every American because every American has a gay person in their life.”
If the party embraced marriage equality, “we would be more appealing to young voters, more appealing to independent voters, more appealing to moderate voters, suburban housewives,” Deaton said. (There is a gender gap in gay marriage opinions; women historically support gay marriage more than their male counterparts.)
In a recent poll, 62% of independents, which made up roughly a third of all registered voters, said gays and lesbians should be able to marry.
“Romney won independents, but not the presidency. I think there are a lot of independents who would call themselves Republicans if they were more comfortable. The anti-gay stuff makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” LaSalvia added. Bringing those independents into the party, he and Mair agree, would be a huge boon to the party.
Like many in the conservative gay marriage movement, LaSalvia is quick to note that supporting marriage has traditionally been a conservative platform. “I’m a pro-life social conservative myself,” he said. “I want gay people to settle down and get married because it’s good for them.”
But politically, he says, supporting gay marriage is simply the future.
“[Republican operative] Karl Rove said he could see a Republican presidential candidate supporting same-sex marriage in 2016," LaSalvia said. "This is the same man who organized and beat the drum against gay marriage in 2004, because that was the political reality. But he wants to win, so this is the new political reality.”