Could The GOP Nominate A Candidate Who Supports Same-Sex Marriage In 2016?

It seems improbable, but the national landscape on same-sex marriage is changing so quickly that even the Republican Party may find itself changing faster than some might think.

GOP Rainbow Flag

Even today, the idea of a Republican Presidential nominee who supported same-sex marriage seems like sheer fantasy. While the American public as a whole has gotten to the point where a majority now supports the idea of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, those same polls still continue to show that Republicans in general, and conservatives in particular, are the one demographic group outside of voters over the age of 65 (who also tend to vote Republican) that oppose marriage equality. This tends to become less true when you look at younger voters, of course, but those voters don’t tend to vote Republican to begin with and their influence over the GOP electorate as a whole is really quite minimal. Ever since it became an issue, the GOP platform has included a plank favoring so-called “traditional marriage,” as well as at least passing support for the idea of a Federal Marriage Amendment that would either ban same-sex marriage nationwide or, in its less extreme form, allow the states to decide the issue for themselves notwithstanding the provisions of the 14th Amendment. Given all of that, and the fact that whoever wins the GOP nomination in 2016 will need to appeal to a base that remains strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, one would think that it would be next to impossible for someone who held the opposing view to make it through the primaries with a win.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake argues, though, that a Republican nominee who favors same-sex marriage is more possible than you might think:

So few Republican elected officials support gay marriage that the bigger question is whether any 2016 hopefuls will support gay marriage at all, much less have a chance to win. But for Portman and anybody else who wants to give it a shot, they first need to see a path to victory.

And that path, however narrow, does exist.

Yes, supporting gay marriage will turn off a whole bunch of would-be supporters when it comes to the 2016 primaries, and in politics, you want to alienate as few people as possible.

But only half of conservative Republicans say they “strongly” oppose gay marriage and would be less likely to vote for a candidate who backs gay marriage. Meanwhile, a clear majority of Republicans doesn’t see the issue as a disqualifier.


[L]ooked at another way — if you include those who say it makes “no difference” to them — you’ve got 59 percent of Republicans who say either that gay marriage support makes them more likely to vote for a candidate or that it doesn’t really matter.

Even among conservative Republicans, the percentage who say it would make them less likely to vote for someone is just 51 percent — lower, we would wager, than most people think.

But just because someone opposes gay marriage doesn’t mean its a major issue for them. Indeed, just 51 percent of conservative Republicans and 42 percent of all Republicans say they oppose gay marriage “strongly.”

The other 53 percent of Republicans either support gay marriage or don’t oppose it strongly.

These numbers notwithstanding, of course, it wouldn’t be hard to see how a prominent Republican Presidential candidate who openly supports same-sex marriage would be attacked by not only his or her opponents, but also the outside groups that are most invested in this issue. While their stance on this issue likely would not hurt them much in states like New Hampshire, or in states with open primaries, it would make pulling off victories in early primary/caucus states such as Iowa and South Carolina exceedingly difficult, and that could blunt any momentum that such a candidate would have heading into the broader primary season in states like California, Florida, and New York where, presumably, their position on same-sex marriage would not be nearly as big of an issue. In that sense, then, the national poll numbers that Blake cites, while interesting, aren’t necessarily a good indication of how a pro-SSM Republican candidate for President would fare in 2016.

Surprisingly, though, there is one fact that Blake’s piece does not address, and it’s a fact that will likely completely change the debate over same-sex marriage in the United States. I am speaking, of course, of the legal developments regarding this issue that have happened over the past year, and which are likely to unfold to an even greater degree over the coming two years. Since Windsor was handed down, we’ve seen an unbroken string of judicial opinions striking down same-sex marriage laws at the state level in whole or in part. One of those laws was recently invalidated by a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the first time, and that case will now be appealed to the Supreme Court. In all likelihood, before the summer is over we will also get decisions from other Courts of Appeal that have heard arguments in a same-sex marriage case. As I stated the other day, it seems as though we are at the point where the Supreme Court will have no choice but to select one or more of these cases for appeal and issue a final ruling on whether or not gays and lesbians have the same right to marry that it recognized to exist for interracial couples in Loving v. Virginia. That decision could be handed down by June of next year.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Court hands down a ruling that finds that state law bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, because quite honestly that seems to be the direction that the Court is heading. At that point, the entire political calculus for the Republican Party is going to change significantly as far as this issue is concerned.  At that point, there will likely still be some hardcore social conservatives who will think that they can fight back by backing a Federal Marriage Amendment, and conservative grifters will use the decision to fundraise off of the phony charge of “judicial activism,” of course. For many in the Republican Party, though, I strongly suspect that there will be a deep, even if silent, sigh of relief that the albatross of this issue has been lifted from their shoulders.

A Republican primary race in a world where same-sex marriage has been legalized will still touch on the issue to some extent, of course. There will be the usual pledges to only appoint “strict constructionist” judges, for example. There will also likely be a rather lively debate, motivated in no small part by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision about the issue of laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and whether or not there should be religious exemptions to such laws. The radicals will claim that legal same-sex marriage means that people will now start trying to force the Catholic Church to perform religious marriages for gays and lesbians against its beliefs, something that I would vehemently oppose notwithstanding my support for marriage equality, and other such horror stories. In the end, though, I suspect that, unlike abortion, a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage will essentially end the political debate rather than reigniting it, especially given the clear direction of public opinion on the matter.

Obviously, things would be different if the Court ruled that states do have the authority to ban same-sex marriage, but I’m not sure they would be all that different. In addition to the legal victories over the past year that I noted above, there have also been a string of political victories on this issue that demonstrate the clear direction of public opinion. The last state where a ban on same-sex marriage passed was the North Carolina referendum passed was North Carolina’s April 2012 ballot question, which perhaps not coincidentally occurred around the same time that President Obama first publicly supported marriage equality. Since then, we’ve seen marriage equality legalized via either referendum or legislative action in 12 states. Presently, there are efforts pending to accomplish the same in states such as Colorado and Oregon, with other efforts to put the matter on the ballot in the works in numerous other states. Even if the movement for same-sex marriage suffers a legal setback, these popular efforts will continue. In all likelihood, they would be energized by a Supreme Court defeat. Whether it happens via the Supreme Court or via popular action, same-sex marriage will be recognized nationwide eventually, and the GOP will be behind the times if it tries to stop it. Given that, the idea of a Republican candidate for President who supports marriage equality may not be quite as improbable as it seems.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:


    No matter what the state of the world is, the Republican primary voters would not accept that. Even if the Supreme Court makes it the law of the land, they will have to run against it. The only question would be constitutional amendment reversing the decision or lots of religious liberty rhetoric to ensure that no public workers ever have to sign licenses for those dirty, dirty people to get married.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    …a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage abortion will essentially end the political debate rather than reigniting it…

  3. Mu says:

    Not as a true majority candidate, but one might sneak in if there’s a strong group out-tea party-ing each other on the right. You could think Paul and Cruz getting into a fight where both suck up 30 % each, and a “moderate” could win on 40% when the other two can’t find a compromise.

  4. @gVOR08:

    For many reasons, I think the political world after a SCOTUS decision on marriage equality would be very different than the one after Roe. Not the least because public opinion would be decidedly on the side of the decision, but also because, once the decision is handed down there would not really be anything else to litigate on the issue. This was not the case with Roe, which is one of the reasons why the issue remains alive today.

  5. socraticsilence says:

    No, I mean maybe one who slow-played it and demurred (“its a states rights issue” as an answer to DOMA like legislation, etc) but outright support would alienate one of the three legs of the Republican base. This issue more than any other highlights the dilemma of the GOP moving forward– simply put, they can’t expand from their current status without losing their existing and ever shrinking base- the same is true to a lesser extent on a range of issues from foreign policy (the one area they may have an opening, we’ll see I guess) to immigration (a dramatic break would be needed here– the policy alone isn’t what turns off so many Hispanic voters its the policy plus the attendant rhetoric) to drug policy.

  6. Rob in CT says:


    Yeah, it seems to me that the hit from “the base” would outweigh the potential gain from moderate-conservative leaners.

    They could try to de-emphasize the issue. Stand down, focus on other things. Even that won’t be easy. But some sort of tactical withdrawl seems wise.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Public opinion is with Roe…Republicanists are not.
    It won’t be any different with equality…Republicans are against it in general…and marriage equality specifically.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    But only half of conservative Republicans say they “strongly” oppose gay marriage and would be less likely to vote for a candidate who backs gay marriage. Meanwhile, a clear majority of Republicans doesn’t see the issue as a disqualifier.

    Even among conservative Republicans, the percentage who say it would make them less likely to vote for someone is just 51 percent — lower, we would wager, than most people think.

    From the above it seems to me to that there is significant opposition to gay marriage in the Republican Party. I believe that the only way the GOP nominates a candidate who supports gay marriage is if GOP voters and delegates do not know about it, and the candidate comes forward after the fact and discloses that he (or she) supports same-sex marriage.

  9. @C. Clavin:

    Yes but the point is that the Roe decision made follow-up lawsuits, and efforts by the state to enact further regulations inevitable by the nature of how the case was decided. That wouldn’t be true in the case of a marriage equality decision, the court would be deciding “Yes” or “No” on the question of whether the 14th Amendment includes a right to same-sex marriage. A yes answer in such a situation would basically be the same as the Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia in that it would mean that there really wouldn’t be anything the state can do about the matter going forward.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I assumed that as your position, but I’ll point out that public opinion was pretty much OK with Roe v Wade at the time. It was only later that it was turned into a political football.

    The Jerry Falwell types weren’t invested in abortion, but found it to be a great fund raising tool. Hence, “Last year Jerry Falwell couldn’t even spell abortion.” Many religious leaders are deeply invested in gay marriage, and may find it too to be a great fundraising tool.

    If SCOTUS decides in favor of gay marriage, I don’t expect things will reach the fever pitch abortion has, but I don’t expect it to quickly and quietly die as an issue. There will be litigation. You point out Hobby Lobby may have opened a door. But at least it will be affirming an accumulation of several lower court decisions and may not provide the clean break and, “Overturn Roe v Wade” sort of rallying cry.

  11. ptfe says:

    The math in the linked piece is rather…optimistic. If 30% of people immediately won’t vote for you, you’ve got a problem. So with an issue like SSM, in order to win, you’d have to have a huge block available already to offset that enormous negative; otherwise, you’re very very very unlikely to manage to pull 70+% of the remaining voters, no matter how witty and charming you are.

    Also, anybody handicapping the split on a SSM decision in SCOTUS (whenever the appropriate case rolls around)? It’s clearly a legacy issue that many justices will be judged on, but I can’t see Scalia, Thomas, and Alito all suddenly going anti-discrimination in this case. Not being familiar with the SCOTUS politics during Loving, was the unanimous decision there just an extension of existing politics, or did it require shaming by conjuring the spirits of future historians?

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    You underestimate the partisan political nature of the Roberts Court.
    On race and religion and politics this court has made decisions that are about the Koch Brother sponsored Justices’ opinions more than legal principles. Hobby Lobby was all about personal opinions and not the law. Same with the Greece, NY Town Council decision when they told the non-Catholics to “get over it”. Same with affirmative action. And of course McCutcheon.
    They will leave a door open…then use it as precedent to kick the door down later.
    There is a track record here.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s possible, but the candidate would have to support the freedom for religious groups and persons to discriminate any gay people.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    After the primaries the nominee will publicly feign his own personal acceptance but won’t stake out a position on the propriety of attempts to undermine it by less-tolerant fellow travelers.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares what the Republicans position will be in the future. No matter who the Republicans nominate and no matter who the Democrats nominate, the Democrats will win. There is no way that the Democrats are going to lose every state that can possibly swing and that is the only way that the Republicans can win.

    The Republicans position on same sex marriage is no more relevant than the Libertarian or Green Parties candidates’ positions. Why not focus on how the 2016 will effect policy and governance and leave the Republican Party out of it.

  16. @C. Clavin:

    Were you paying attention when the Windsor decision was handed down?

    Your cynicism not withstanding, the fact of the matter is that as a matter of law a “yes” answer on this issue would end the debate on the issue of marriage equality from a legal point of view.

  17. humanoid.panda says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Religious exceptions and the right to discriminate are not grounds enough for litigation?

  18. Doug, are you high?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Maybe they could start with a candidate who supported Civil Rights or, say, science, and work their way up to gay marriage in 30 or 40 years.

  20. superdestroyer says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I always find it humorous that the party that has lost civil rights lawsuit many times in the last few years is the one that claims to be supporting of civil rights. Do you really think that the party that wants to have a “discussion” on race-based reparations really cares about civil rights.

    Also, the party that refuses to understand Simpson’s Paradox has little room to discuss science.

  21. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Yeah…and I read Scalia’s dissent. His personal opinion was crystal clear.

  22. @C. Clavin:

    Dissenting opinions aren’t going to matter that much once the issue is decided.

  23. Grewgills says:

    Could The GOP Nominate A Candidate Who Supports Same-Sex Marriage In 2016?

    They technically could, but they won’t.

  24. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I’ll bet you $50 the decision is not as B&W as you predict.

  25. Grewgills says:

    superdestroyer don’t you ever get tired of that same old song? It’s time to learn a new tune.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    With all due respect, answering “yes” to Doug’s question is about as delusional as so many other libertarian ideas…

  27. MarkedMan says:

    The Gay marriage endorsement is like the abortion endorsement,only in reverse. We are so used to abortion being a major cultural flashpoint that we forget that 30-40 years ago it enjoyed wide, bi-partisan and even some religious support. The Catholic church didn’t have much of an opinion on it, or rather it didn’t differentiate it much with pre-marital sex and birth control. Even evangelicals didn’t have much of an opinion on it with some sects actually pro.I’m not saying everyone was wildly in favor, but it certainly wasn’t the incredible dividing line it is today. 30 years ago, not only was Planned Parenthood an organization that viewed itself primarily about, well, family planning and women’s health, but it enjoyed loud and public support from prominent Republican women, or at least the wives of prominent Republicans, even when the subject of abortion came up. Heck, I had a family member that worked in the fundraising department of Planned Parenthood in the last decade and I can attest to the fact that there are still a lot of prominent Republican women that clasp hands and donate to Planned Parenthood. They just do it in whispers and with plausible deniability now.

  28. Kylopod says:

    Blake’s piece fails to address the fact that if Rob Portman runs, he’ll be virtually alone in the field in his support for SSM. Besides Portman, not one of the current crop of Republicans commonly seen as potential 2016 contenders–not one–is on record as supporting SSM. They basically are divided into two groups: those who are absolutely, unequivocally, staunchly opposed to SSM (Cruz, Jindal, Perry, Huckabee, Ryan, Santorum) and those whose opposition to SSM is not quite as absolute or unequivocal (Christie and Rubio have supported civil unions; Rand Paul has adopted “leave it to the states” rhetoric, despite his own record of favoring a Federal Marriage Amendment; Walker has suggested maybe we shouldn’t be kinda, y’know, really emphasizing opposition to SSM; and so on).

    Of course any one of them can “evolve” on the issue in the next two years, as so many Democratic politicians have been doing lately. But what would the incentive be? Chris Christie may have the greatest potential on this issue, and yet (even ignoring Bridgegate) he seems to be spending all his energy on making peace with the right flank of his party, who still largely view him as the RINO who helped reelect Obama.

    In any event, it isn’t just a question of what Republican voters think; it’s also about how the candidates will fare in the so-called “invisible primary” (a poli-sci concept that deserves a lot more attention than it gets). Remember in the last cycle, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain dropped out before a single person had cast a vote, and while Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann stuck around through Iowa, they were basically mortally crippled by that point. A lot turns on how the media (including the conservative media) reacts to the candidates before any of the primaries take place, and I suspect that if Portman runs, he’ll be quickly cast into the Jon Huntsman-y fringe category.

    (I use the word “fringe” with some hesitation, but it’ll do no harm as long as we understand what it means. In Democratic politics, the word is a marker for certifiable flakes like Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton, whereas in Republican politics it refers to candidates who are closer than their rivals to what in the real universe is commonly known as the mainstream.)

  29. superdestroyer says:


    I only make the point when it is applicable. By the way, what is the Libertarian Party’s position on same-sex marriage?

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Count me as among the above who want some of what you are smoking Doug.

  31. Grewgills says:

    You are monomaniacal on that point and shoehorn it into near every thread you comment on. Take a break from your hobby horse for a bit. If you step back you may realize that political parties are not static. Both parties have changed quite a bit since their formation, even changing which one is the ‘conservative’ party and which one is the ‘progressive’ party. For chrissakes that reversal has happened within the past 60 years. It’s not like it’s ancient history. Crack open a history book.

  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: whereas in Republican politics it refers to candidates who are closer than their rivals to what in the real universe is commonly known as the mainstream. sanity.

    FTFY, free of charge as this is a part of the First Time package.

  33. Stonetools says:

    Short answer, no.
    I see a possibility for a Republican presidential nominee who is “not opposed” to SSM in 2024.

  34. Janis Gore says:

    @Stonetools: Two more election cycles+. That sounds about right, Stonetools.

    Events of 2004 surprised me — the passage of all the state definitions of marriage. Opponents of SSM are strong, motivated organizers.

  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Janis Gore:

    the passage of all the state definitions of marriage. Opponents of SSM are strong, motivated organizers.

    They also tend to be opponents of abortion, which is why I don’t give much credence to Doug’s “This is different.”