It's an axiom of modern American politics that most Republicans are reflexively — even stridently — anti-gay. The hiring, then forced resignation in May, of openly gay foreign policy expert Richard Grenell by the Romney campaign enhanced the party's, and Mitt Romney's, anti-gay image.
To be sure, anti-gay sentiments still run deep in the GOP. Yet if one digs deeper than the conventional wisdom, one finds large, overlooked pockets of gay tolerance among rank-and-file Republicans. Polling data reveal four common myths about right-of-center attitudes toward gay rights.
Myth No. 1: Most Republicans oppose gay rights in any form. A review of polling data from GOP voters shows a starkly different reality. A 2011 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research showed 66% of Republicans support workplace policies banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But Republican support for gay rights doesn't stop there. In a 2008 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 64% of conservatives supported allowing openly gay service members into the armed forces; a recent National Journal poll showed a majority of Republicans satisfied with the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law. Only 37% of Republicans expressed support for a federal amendment to ban gay marriage nationwide.
Myth No. 2: Evangelicals are a gay rights wasteland. In spite of the long record of opposition to gay rights on the religious right, the new reality is not as absolute. A 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 41% of Christian conservatives supported legal recognition for gay couples (14% in favor of marriage equality and 27% in favor of civil unions). A 2011 poll by the same organization found 44% of evangelical millennials — those ages 18 to 29 — in favor of same-sex marriage.
Myth No. 3: There is little support overall among Republicans for recognition of same-sex relationships. Even on this contentious issue, there has been substantial growth on the right in support for marriage equality and civil unions. An August 2010 CBS News poll found 59% of Republicans support either same-sex marriage or civil unions (25% for marriage, 34% for civil unions). A May 2011 poll by Public Policy Polling showed a majority of Republicans — 51% — in favor of either same-sex marriage (12%) or civil unions (39%). While the percentage of Republicans supporting same-sex marriage varies from poll to poll, all of them show a majority of Republicans favor legal recognition of gay couples.
Myth No. 4: The "tea party" and the religious right hold the same views on gay and lesbian issues. Despite the significant overlap between these two large groups of voters on fiscal issues, a 2010 Washington Post survey of tea party members found the issue of same-sex marriage near the bottom of their long list of priorities. Only two issues ranked lower: abortion rights and gun rights. Religious right organizations, on the other hand, put their battle against both abortion and gay rights at the very top of their agenda.
The Public Religion Research Institute's 2010 American Values Survey, the largest study of tea party attitudes ever done, found that 53% of tea party members support legal recognition for same-sex couples — 18% for same-sex marriage and 35% for civil unions. This is an astonishing finding in light of the widespread perception that these two movements are virtually one and the same. A 2010 CBS News/New York Times survey of tea party supporters found similar results: 16% in favor of marriage and 41% favoring civil unions.
Leading religious organizations and their spokesmen argue that gay rights are simply incompatible with conservative principles and policies. Yet an examination of polling data shows that most rank-and-file Republicans view gay rights issues — including the repeal of state sodomy laws, equal access to the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexuals, and the right to serve in the armed forces — as compatible with core Republican principles of individual liberty, limited government and free enterprise.
Now that the campaigns have moved to general election calculus — keeping the party base intact while wooing independent and moderate voters — the Romney campaign, and Republican candidates nationwide, would do well to take heed.