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Analysis | The simple reason why Republican senators voted against same-sex marriage


Same-sex marriage is one of the more remarkable examples of how politics can change quickly. Ten years ago, opinions on allowing same-sex couples to marry were evenly divided; nearly every state banned legal recognition for same-sex unions.

After that, attitudes quickly changed. Support for same-sex marriage grew, and in June 2015, the Supreme Court ordered that same-sex unions receive the same protections as marriages between men and women. Opposition largely collapsed. The issue was resolved.

Still. On Wednesday, the Senate held a vote on whether federal legislation protecting same-sex marriage should be advanced in the event that the Supreme Court — following its decision in Roe against Wade — decided to lift the protection of those unions. And while 12 Republican senators joined the Democratic majority in favoring the bill, 37 Republicans opposed the measure.

Why? The continued political power of the Conservative base – and that base’s continued, staunch opposition to the idea.

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Every four years, Stanford University and the University of Michigan conduct a national poll, American National Election Studies, to measure sentiment on political issues, ideology and voting behavior. In 2020, it measured views on same-sex marriage and found that more than two-thirds of Americans believe those unions should be legally recognized. About 1 in 5 Americans only support civil unions for same-sex couples. Fourteen percent, meanwhile, are against any recognition whatsoever.

However, as you would expect, there are major differences by party. The ANES divides party identity into seven groups, ranging from strong Democrats through independents leaning toward one party or the other, and on to strong Republicans.

Of democracy-leaning Democrats and Independents, 4 in 5 support same-sex marriage. Among Republicans, it’s just over half – and among strong Republicans, only 2 in 5 support same-sex marriage.

When we look at ideology – again on a seven-point scale from extremely liberal to extremely conservative – you see a much sharper divide. Nearly all “extremely liberal” Americans say they support same-sex marriage. Only about 1 in 5 “extremely conservative” Americans do. Almost half of that group believe that there should be no legal recognition at all for same-sex relationships.

We can use another ideological measure, Voteview’s assessment of politicians’ votes, to show how this overlaps with the Senate vote. The most moderate members of the GOP caucus were more likely to vote to advance the bill. The more conservative members were more inclined to oppose it. (The most conservative Republican senator to vote to continue was Senator Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.).

Now let’s overlap ideology and party. You can first see that those with a stronger Republican identity are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage: 70 percent of moderate Republican independents support same-sex marriage, versus 53 percent of moderate “strong Republicans.”

But the bigger difference is between moderates and conservatives. Fewer than 1 in 4 ultra-conservative Republicans support legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Of course, extremely conservative-strong Republicans make up only a small portion of the country — about 10 percent, according to the ANES. But those Republicans are more likely to vote in party elections than less conservative Republicans. Even among Republican-leaning independents, those who identify as more conservative are more likely to say they vote in primaries — and more likely to oppose same-sex marriage.

That pattern also applies to self-reported campaign contributions.

There is another helpful consideration here. The vote to advance the legislation in the Senate had 62 yes votes, slightly less than the 67 percent who support same-sex marriage nationally. However, those 62 senators represent about 66 percent of the country’s population (with half of a state’s population allocated to each of its senators). In other words, while same-sex marriage enjoys strong support nationally, the vote to move the bill forward ultimately represented the level of support fairly accurately.

That the bill needed 60 votes to pass at all is, of course, an entirely different topic.

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