Will support for gay marriage sway GOP front-runners?

Liz Goodwin
The Upshot

As we reported earlier, a new CNN poll shows for the first time that a majority of Americans say gays should have a constitutional right to get married.

As polling-statistics blogger Nate Silver points out, the margin of error lessens the force of the finding, but it is safe to conclude that the old political wisdom that a majority of Americans are staunchly opposed to gay marriage is no longer valid. And support for gay marriage is growing at an accelerated rate, especially among younger people, Silver found.

This has the potential to shake up political calculations — especially within the Republican Party, which as recently as 2004 had made opposition to gay marriage a centerpiece of its election strategy. The CNN poll shows that 55 percent of independents support gay marriage, a group Republicans desperately need to win a national election.

The GOP's front-runners to challenge President Obama in 2012 — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty — have all stated their opposition to gay marriage, some more loudly than others. Could the upswing in support for gay marriage make any of them change their minds?

Clarke Cooper, head of the pro-gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans, tells The Upshot he thinks candidates won't necessarily be swayed but will stay quieter about their views. Clarke says his group is encouraging candidates not to parade their anti-gay marriage views and focus instead on issues that appeal to a broader swath of voters.

"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," Cooper said of his group's message to candidates. "Obviously, we would prefer for you to be vocally in favor of equality, but if you're in favor of repealing 'don't ask, don't tell' but you're personally not comfortable with marriage equality, then talk about 'don't ask, don't tell' and just say nothing about marriage equality. Don't say you're against it if you're not asked about it."

It appears that Republicans are listening. After a federal judge overturned California's voter-approved gay marriage ban last week, many national Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — stayed quiet.

But Cooper said he's not so sure Republican politicians will come around to same-sex marriage in the same way many did with gays serving openly in the military. Many Republicans now support the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, an evolution that mirrored Americans' views on the issue. "Marriage equality is more of an emotional discussion," Cooper said.

GOP political strategist Liz Mair says she thinks no Republican seeking the presidency would take a stance to the left of President Obama on the issue. The president says he still favors civil unions — not marriage — for gay people.

"When you look at candidates running at the state, or congressional level, especially in bluer states, you may start to see some Republicans begin publicly stating support for gay marriage, as indeed we have this year," she wrote. "But when most Democrats continue to publicly oppose it, that's unlikely to become a trend nationwide anytime soon."

(Photo: AP. Gay-marriage advocates celebrate in Salt Lake City after Prop. 8 in California was overturned.)