Fight Against Gay Marriage? Not if the Iowa GOP Wants Young Voters
Young Republicans in Iowa are still split on the institution of marriage being extended to gay people. But there is a growing consensus among college-aged GOPers that in order to win elections, the party's focus should be elsewhere.
The second article in a two-part series.
Gay and lesbian campus groups and College Republicans haven't exactly been friendly to one another over the years, in Iowa or the rest of the country.
But there are signs that with this coming generation the trend could be changing, and for the Republican Party that could be critical.
"As a young Republican, I see where the party’s coming from with the idea of traditional marriage, but I cannot support that aspect of the platform," said Victoria Hurst, president of the University of Northern Iowa College Republicans.
She said she supports many Republican ideals, but not the party's stance on gay marriage.
"America has bigger problems than who can and cannot marry; it is time to move beyond this and focus on bigger problems, like the federal deficit and unemployment rates," she said.
Many young Americans - Democrats and Republicans - feel the same way, including several politically active young Republicans interviewed for this story by Patch.
Read more in part one:
More than ever, young people support gay marriage.
A Gallup Poll in November of young voters aged 18-29 found that 73 percent support same-sex marriage. Almost a third of Republicans surveyed support gay marriage.
The Republican Party has been losing the battle for young voters in a convincing way the last three elections.
Now the GOP is having an internal debate over where gay marriage fits into the party's platform and message. The outcome of that debate could affect which party gains the loyalty of this next generation of voters.
Young Republicans Feel Pressure from GOP's Gay Marriage Positions
There is a stigma that the GOP doesn't like gays, and Republicans in Hurst's generation are feeling the heat from that.
It is something Hurst has experienced firsthand.
One of Hurst's best friends is a gay student at UNI who at first disliked her due to her political affiliation. Once they got to know each other better, and he learned her stance on gay marriage, they became fast friends.
"We were assigned a group project together, we got to learn a little more about each other, and he was very surprised to learn that I am not opposed to same-sex marriage," Hurst said. "We’ve been great friends ever since, and his family was even kind enough to take me with them to Florida over spring break last year."
Hurst said since they first met her friend has defended her on multiple occasions from other students who have judged her solely because she is a Republican.
The backlash over GOP's social stances puts pressure on young Republicans for their political party choice, especially on predominately liberal campuses, and may push away moderates the party hopes to attract.
For example, a few years ago on the University of Iowa campus, College Republicans received a scornful response to a campus email blast promoting their "Conservative Coming Out Week." The event's title alluded to identifying as a Republican on a liberal college campus as similar to the challenges of announcing you are a homosexual.
"(Expletive) You Republicans," a gay University of Iowa professor wrote in response to the event in an e-mail that went out to the whole campus. When the subsequent story on the response hit the press, and blew up into a national story, it once again thrust the awkward friction between campus groups into focus.
'A Losing Issue'
Natalie Ginty, 22, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans who was at the center of the "Coming Out Week" flap, said many young Republicans still firmly believe that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
The Gallup Poll, for example, shows 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Republicans support gay marriage, but there's still another 70 percent who don't.
However, Ginty said there is a growing consensus among young Republicans she's spoken to that if Republican candidates continue to get sidetracked on issues, such as gay marriage, which mainstream Americans increasingly support, they will continue to lose elections.
"Young Republicans for the most part believe in the Republican platform and what it says on gay marriage, but if we want to win we need to stop talking about this and start talking about our fiscal issues better," Ginty said.
"It is a losing issue, there's just no way to deny it."
Ginty said that unlike other social conservative issues, such as abortion, which Republicans in Iowa remain largely opposed to in at least some of its forms, gay rights like marriage have split young Republican voters.
Libertarian-leaning Republicans and Independents who might otherwise vote Republican for fiscal reasons have considered the opposite ticket, or voted third party, Ginty said, as they feel that the government should not be in the business of restricting freedoms for anyone.
Young Libertarians Gaining Influence in Iowa, Influencing Debate
Kyle Etzel, president of the Iowa State College Republicans, identifies with this position.
“Personally, I'm more Libertarian. I don't agree with gay marriage. I'm Catholic. … but I don't think that is something you can legislate,” Etzel said. "The Libertarian side of me says, 'I want the government to leave me alone.'”
Etzel said the Iowa State College Republicans are fairly evenly split between Libertarian and socially conservative Republicans. He said there is no clear consensus in the group on the gay marriage issue.
The Libertarian streak among college students in Iowa is a strong one, as evidenced by the large crowds drawn by Liberty movement hero Ron Paul at each of his visits to college campus this past caucus cycle. Some student Democrats even told Patch at the time that they would switch parties to support Paul in the Republican caucus.
Patch talked to several students this week on campus, both Democrats and Republicans, and none of whom felt gay marriage was an issue they cared about politically.
One Democratic student interviewed at Schaeffer Hall on the University of Iowa campus declined to give his name but said he considers himself fiscally conservative. However, the strong stance against gay marriage makes him unable to consider supporting the GOP candidate.
Tim O'Hara, 22, a UI senior from Park Ridge, IL, is a self-identified Republican who supported Mitt Romney in the last election.
He also supports gay marriage.
"It [The GOP's position on gay marriage] doesn't push me away from the party because I don't want to vote for a liberal who's going to make a federal law about it," said Tim O'Hara, 22, a UI senior from Park Ridge, IL.
O'Hara said while it may not push him away, he believes the Republican Party is losing a lot of moderate voters on the issue.
"I wish they would stop," O'Hara said of the GOP's traditional stance opposing gay marriage.
Is it the Message or the Delivery?
University of Iowa Professor Tim Hagle, an associate professor in political science and avid campaign watcher, said the Republican Party is in a bind right now, trying to determine how to improve its dismal recent performances with young people, women, Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities.
Hagle said the question lingering out there now is a feeling of doubt about messaging: is it the message that is driving these groups away, or the way it is being delivered?
"That's the fight that's going on right now within the Republican Party at the national level and at the state level, as well," Hagle said.
Hagle said that Republicans feel that if they could improve their fortunes with Latino voters, who were more supportive of George W. Bush, and tend to be socially conservative, it could improve their electoral futures. But part of improving their overall messaging to mainstream America could also be reducing the national party's emphasis on opposing gay marriage.
Hagle said that although it initially seemed odd to him that Ken Mehlman and the Iowa Republicans for Freedom would hold an event in a state that already has gay marriage on the books (albeit some would argue not by the public's vote). But he said, with key elections coming in 2014 and 2016 in Iowa, perhaps they are playing the long game to convince party insiders that the gay marriage issue is not a winner.
"If you want to make this point, the right time to do it might be in a non election year when people aren't so tense about candidates and an upcoming election," Hagle said. "You can actually sit down and talk to people."
Expect Resistance from Social Conservative Wing of GOP
But getting the social conservative wing of the party, represented in Iowa by influential religiously affiliated groups like the Family Leader, to stop campaigning on the issue may be easier said than done.
"Practically, the Republican Party dies if it abandons marriage," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Social conservatives simply are not going to stand for themselves being read out of the conservative movement."
If they can't maintain this delicate balance and keep social conservatives happy while listening to the way the political winds are blowing, the question for Republicans may then become, which group - young voters or social conservatives - can they afford to lose more.
In the past three election cycles, the youth vote has swung strongly to the Democrats, including a 37-percentage point margin for President Obama in 2012. This trend could be a problem for Republicans, Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science, sociology and communication at the Ohio State University, told the Huffington Post.
Beck said Democrats could be developing a brand loyalty with younger voters that will last a lifetime, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt did for their parties.
"It's something Republicans need to worry about in the future, because they could lose that entire generation," Beck said.
(Patch Editors Alison Gowans, Jessica Miller, and Brian Morelli contributed to this report.)