Yes, the 2016 Republican nominee could support gay marriage


Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) speaks with reporters as he arrives for a vote on an energy bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). (AP)

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) says he is considering running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Oh, and by the way, he supports gay marriage.

These two things, needless to say, don't usually go together. But Portman seems interested in going where no major GOP candidate has gone before.

So can he win?

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.

Here's a Washington Post-ABC News poll from March. Republicans, as you can see, still oppose gay marriage.

Portman1

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.

Portman2

But what about gay marriage as an actual voting issue? Many more Republicans say support of gay marriage is a strike against a candidate than say it's a feather in their cap: by a three-to-one margin among all Republicans and a seven-to-one margin among conservative Republicans.

Clearly, supporting gay marriage doesn't win you many friends.

Portman3

But looked 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.

Portman4

In other words, a gay marriage-supporting Republican still has between 50 and 60 percent of Republican primary voters who will give him or her a fair shake.

That's a lot less than 100 percent, but it's still a pretty good share — especially considering the winners of the first four contests in the 2012 GOP presidential primary averaged 37.5 percent of the vote.

Supporting gay marriage certainly makes it harder to win a GOP primary, and it's very unlikely the 2016 nominee will back gay marriage. But it's not inconceivable.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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