Public Opinion

The “Conservative Case” for Same-Sex Marriage: Is it Working?

Mar 7 '13

This is a guest post from political scientists Ashley Koning and David Redlawsk.


The amicus brief. Endorsements from well-known GOP members. A television ad featuring prominent GOP voices. Over the past few years – and precipitously within the past few months – a growing number of Republican and conservative elites led by former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman are bucking their party’s traditional stance on same-sex marriage and claiming that the issue actually embodies the very values their party holds dear: individual freedom, limited government, and the teachings of the “golden rule.” But are recent arguments that make this “conservative case” for same-sex marriage working on the very people at whom they are aimed – fellow Republicans? At first glance, it doesn’t look like it.

Research we are conducting at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling finds that these conservative advocacy frames by themselves have little to no effect on public opinion overall – not even on their GOP target audience. The liberal advocacy frame of “marriage equality,” on the other hand, does seem to move both Democrats and independents to become even more supportive. But our most recent study gives pause to the conclusion that these conservative advocacy arguments are all for naught. When Republicans are told specifically that Mehlman supports same-sex marriage because of such core Republican principles as the “golden rule,” Mehlman’s fellow Republicans begin to respond – suggesting that putting a “face to a frame” may be key to increasing Republican support.

These findings come from a series of studies we’ve conducted over the past year and a half testing the effects of both liberal and conservative advocacy frames in favor of same-sex marriage. Our first study in October 2011 used a question wording experiment focused on ideologically liberal advocacy language, looking at how support for same-sex marriage shifts when it is framed as “marriage equality” versus the standard label of “gay marriage.” We find that wording the issue this way produces a 9-percentage point increase across the sample overall and induces greater support across a wide range of demographics. In particular, Democrats and independents – who already typically support same-sex marriage – become noticeably more supportive when the “equality” frame is invoked. Republican attitudes, on the other hand, remain virtually unchanged.  The lefthand side of the graph below shows this result:

In a second study, we turned to a set of conservative pro-same-sex marriage frames that began to be invoked by Mehlman and other Republican elites, anticipating that – just as the liberal frame moved Democrats – these frames would resonate with Republicans. This study, conducted in December 2011, explored references to the “golden rule,” individual freedom, and limited government as reasons for support – frames meant to connect to Republicans in the context of their own partisan and ideological values. But in repeated tests, the conservative advocacy frames turn out to show little to no effect on attitudes in both NJ statewide and national samples – even with their intended Republican and conservative targets. (See the middle part of the graph above.)  Our takeaway at this point was that these frames were unlikely to move the mass public at all, despite efforts by pro-same-sex marriage Republican elites to do just that.

But, it occurred to us that maybe we were missing something. These conservative frames do not exist in a vacuum; instead they are tied to their advocates whenever they are discussed. So in a third study in June 2012, we added one more component to the conservative advocacy frames by simultaneously testing their impact alongside partisan elite cues. We decided we needed to test not just how the issue is framed but also who is associated with it. We framed the question with supportive partisan elites on both sides of the aisle: “President Obama” as the Democrat (who, at the time, had just publicly come out in support of same-sex marriage) and “former Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman” as the Republican. We then attributed to each of them the conservative advocacy frame based on the “golden rule,” which both have used as a key component of why they support the issue.

This time, we find real potential for inducing more support among Republicans.  Both Mehlman and Obama combined with the conservative “golden rule” frame produce a small increase in support for same-sex marriage among Republicans. Perhaps more interestingly, though, the Mehlman-supported frame also shows a dramatic 16-point drop in opposition among Republicans and an accompanying shift toward greater uncertainty, with one in five Republicans saying they are unsure – more than twice the number of those unsure when not given any frame.  The graph below shows the effects of various frames on the attitudes of Republicans in particular.

So while we find no evidence that the conservative advocacy frames alone influence Republican support at the mass level, attaching a Republican elite to the “golden rule” frame seems to make a notable difference. When we show that Mehlman supports same-sex marriage and does so for reasons consistent with his partisanship and ideology, it appears to give Republicans “permission” to be more inclined to do the same – or to at least considerably reduce their opposition in exchange for increased indecision. This result suggests that as more Republican elites “come out” in support for the issue, their personal endorsements of the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage may have the potential to change the game among Republicans, who are otherwise lagging greatly as overall attitudes rapidly move in a more supportive direction. As Mehlman states, he fights for same-sex marriage “because [he is] a conservativ[e], not in spite of it.” And that’s likely to be the key to attitude change among conservatives as Mehlman and others lead by example to show that the values underlying same-sex marriage are ones that their fellow partisans already have.