2016 and the demographics of social issues


Republicans are feeling pretty good about their chances of winning the presidency next year. They’ve got a strong (if currently overcrowded) bench of candidates and a lot of the likely issues are breaking their way.

Still, judging from the results of a recent Gallup Poll, Republicans should run scared in 2016. Very scared.

The poll found that for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1999, the number of Americans who self-identified as “social liberals” equaled the number of self-identified as “social conservatives;” each group weighed in at 31 percent. Most of the remaining 38 percent self-identified as social moderates.

As recently as 2010, social conservatives led by 17 points. (39 percent conservative to 22 percent liberal).

Karl Rove wrote a column about this in the June 3 Wall Street Journal. He ascribed the shift to “largely Democrats lurching further leftward.”

“In 2010, more Democrats described themselves as social moderates than social liberals, 41 percent to 37 percent,” he said. “Today, 53 percent of Democrats are social liberals and 31 percent social moderates.”

Rove also pointed out that Republicans have become more socially moderate. “Since 2010, the share of Republicans describing themselves as social conservatives has dropped to 53 percent from 62 percent,” he said. “During the same period [Republican] social moderates rose to 34 percent from 31 percent and social liberals grew to 11 percent from 7 percent.” Rove didn’t characterize this as Republicans lurching socially leftward as well (albeit from a farther right starting point), but that is what it amounts to.

Rove adds that “much of this appears to be driven by rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage. In 2009, Gallup found 40 percent of respondents said such marriages should be valid and 57 percent said they should not. This year, support is at 60 percent and opposition at 37 percent.”

Rove knows a lot about the politics of same-sex marriage, but in suggesting that the gay marriage issue is what’s driving the leftward lurches, Rove is ignoring a more important factor: demographics.

Every year approximately 4 million Americans reach voting age, and approximately 2 million Americans die of old age.

Over the course of two or three presidential election cycles, this adds up to a pretty dramatic demographic shift. In the 12 years between the 2004 and 2016 presidential elections, 48 million young Americans will have become eligible to vote and 24 million eligible voters will have died of old age.

It doesn’t automatically follow that the young are more socially liberal than the old but that is often true, and it is certainly the case in the U.S. today. Data aggregated from 14 Gallup surveys taken throughout 2014 bears this trend out. Among Americans born before 1945 (Americans aged 70 or older; Gallup calls them Traditionalists), social conservatives outnumbered social liberals by 31 percentage points (48 to 17 percent). Among Americans aged 18 to 35 (Gallup’s Millennial cohort) social conservatives are outnumbered by social liberals by a 2 percentage point margin (28 to 30 percent).

It isn’t voters changing their minds on gay marriage that’s driving the spike in the number of social liberals and the decline in the number of social conservatives, it’s the young socially liberal Americans replacing the old, socially conservative ones in the pool of potential voters.

The headline on Rove’s column was “Are social issues hurting Republicans?” His answer to that question was “Not as much as liberals hope, but the GOP does need to change its rhetoric on some issues.”

The truth is the social issues that matter to the young — abortion, gender equality, gay rights, marijuana legalization — are ravaging the GOP, because they are driving away huge numbers of socially liberal younger voters and cementing the social liberalism of millions of them.

It isn’t social issues per se that are hurting Republicans. It’s the authoritarian stands on social issues that are favored by the social conservatives that make up the Republican base that are hurting it. Republicans do fine on social issues when they come down on the libertarian side of them — as they have on gun control for example.

But authoritarian social conservatism can gut an otherwise attractive Republican candidate’s campaign in a heart-beat. Consider the cases of Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012. The campaigns of both imploded when the candidates tried to justify their opposition to abortion in cases of rape by downplaying the consequences of rape.

Republicans might also consider how Rove’s 2004 strategy of mobilizing social conservative voters with ballot issues can be used against them in 2016, only over pot this time. As of now, it is likely there will be marijuana legalization measures on the ballots of at least seven states. The number could easily shoot up to a dozen or more if the Democrats think they can exploit the issue to drive Millenials to the polls.

Rove is right to say the rise of social liberalism will require Republican candidates to change their rhetoric on some issues — but that’s not enough. They need to change their attitude too — to one that is less authoritarian and more welcoming of the young.

A couple days ago Jon Gabriel, a conservative political writer and blogger (Ricochet, The Blaze, Freedom Works) gave an excellent example of how to do this. Gabriel was addressing how Republican candidates should handle questions concerning Caitlyn (neé Bruce) Jenner when pressed by leftist reporters. Here’s how he said they should respond:

“The Declaration of Independence talks of the pursuit of happiness. Caitlyn Jenner and every other American can pursue theirs in the way they see fit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to talking about ISIS.”

The thought that the “pursuit of happiness” is an unalienable right equal with life and liberty is probably the single most radical idea (or exceptional idea if you prefer) to come out of the American Revolution, so radical the founders recoiled from writing it into the Bill of Rights. The Republican Party should both embrace it in its rhetoric and affirm it as an integral part of a new social conservatism.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.