Right now, the political world is in the middle of the Buttigieg Boomlet. Everyone in the media (and even some voters) is going nuts for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s a 37-year-old Harvard-educated Afghanistan war veteran who speaks about half a dozen languages and, like almost every Democrat in the United States, is running for president. And if Mayor Pete were to win the Democratic nomination, he’d be the first openly gay major-party presidential candidate.
A couple of decades ago, Buttigieg’s sexuality probably would have been a deal-breaker. But polling data suggests that American opinions on LGBT issues have shifted dramatically over the past couple of decades, and those shifts have created real room for a gay candidate. Buttigieg would undoubtedly face hurdles if he were to win the nomination, but Democrats could pick candidates with more serious deficits.
It’s hard to overstate how quickly Americans have collectively changed their mind on LGBT issues. Over the past couple of decades, both Democrats and Republicans have become much more likely to say that sexual relations between adults of the same gender are “not wrong at all” and much less likely to say “always wrong.” Opinions have changed on marriage equality, too — both through generational replacement and persuasion. Younger voters are more likely to favor same-sex marriage than older voters are, but older generations also seem to have moved left on the issue over time.
Unsurprisingly, Americans have simultaneously become more comfortable with LGBT people holding positions of power. In 2015, Gallup found that 74 percent of Americans would vote for a well-qualified gay or lesbian presidential candidate from their party. Only 24 percent said they wouldn’t. That’s a big shift from some similar 20th-century numbers — only 26 percent said they’d vote for a gay or lesbian candidate in 1978, and 59 percent said they would in 1999. A 2019 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll also showed that 68 percent would be “enthusiastic about” or “comfortable with” a gay or lesbian presidential candidate. In 2006, that number was 43 percent.
Gay and lesbian candidates face more opposition than candidates who are straight, but are not white and male. Gallup found that a greater percentage of Americans would vote for a Catholic, female, black or Hispanic candidate than a gay or lesbian candidate, while evangelical Christian candidates and gay and lesbian candidates had similar numbers (73 percent would vote for an evangelical, 74 percent would vote for a lesbian or gay person). The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll also found that respondents were more comfortable with a black, female or white male candidate than they were with a gay or lesbian candidate. But respondents were more comfortable with “a person who is gay or lesbian” as a presidential candidate than one who is older than 75, relatively young (under 40), Muslim, socialist or politically independent.
These are all basically good results for Buttigieg and gay and lesbian candidates across the country. Looking at these numbers, I think Buttigieg’s youth and his midsize-city governing experience might present more of an obstacle to his presidential hopes than his sexual orientation.
But Buttigieg still might face some unique struggles. It’s possible that there’s some amount of social desirability bias in these poll results. Those who are cooler toward LGBT people might tell an interviewer that they are pro-LGBT because they don’t want to seem backward or judgmental, causing pollsters such as Gallup and NBC-Wall Street Journal to underestimate the prevalence of anti-LGBT sentiments.
In fact, political scientists Gabriele Magni and Andrew Reynolds recently found (using some fancy survey experimentation that controls for other demographic factors) that gay, lesbian and transgender candidates got somewhat less support than straight candidates. And there’s always the problem of implicit bias. Everyone brings subconscious assumptions to day-to-day life, and some voters might unknowingly judge a gay candidate by different standards than they would judge a straight one. The top-line findings from Gallup and NBC-Wall Street Journal should be encouraging to Team Buttigieg. But they don’t necessarily mean that he’ll have an easy campaign.
Stll, Democrats can — and arguably have — elected candidates with more substantial weaknesses than Buttigieg in the past. If his semi-longshot presidential run doesn’t pan out, he has a pretty good shot at becoming the nation’s first openly gay vice presidential nominee. And even if Buttigieg doesn’t end up in the White House in any capacity, his ability to run a campaign in which his sexual orientation is a virtual non-issue is a real, if subtle, victory for LGBT equality.