Clash of Cultures: White Evangelical Protestants, Millennials, and the Future of the GOP

One of the most significant challenges facing the GOP can be reduced to just two nearly identical numbers: 72 percent and 71 percent.
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After the 2012 election, political commentators from inside and outside the Republican Party devoted considerable time dissecting the various challenges--shifting demographic landscape, an identity crisis, branding problems--that seem to have beset the Grand Old Party. (Some have gone so far as to suggest exchanging the "Old" in GOP for something more fashionable.)

However, one of the most significant challenges facing the GOP can be reduced to just two nearly identical numbers: 72% and 71%. According to a recent PRRI/Brookings survey, 72% of Millennials (Americans age 18 to 29) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while a nearly identical number (71%) of white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Millennials are among the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage, while white evangelicals remain the issue's most ardent opponents. In 2016, the GOP nominee will face a serious coalition management challenge, since the party needs the votes of both groups.

Among the general public, a slim majority (52%) favor legalizing same-sex marriage, and there are huge gaps in support levels among Democrats (65%) vs. Republicans (28%). But among Millennials, there is near consensus on this issue, and partisan differences are muted. Millennial Republicans (58%) are nearly twice as likely as Republicans overall and almost four times as likely as senior Republicans (14%) to favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. And while Millennial Republicans are significantly less supportive of same-sex marriage than their Democratic peers (77%), their views are much more closely aligned with their generation than with their party. The 35-point gap between the views of Democratic and Republican seniors on same-sex marriage (50% vs. 14%) shrinks by nearly half among Millennials.

A recent report authored by the Republican National Committee suggested that the GOP should play down differences with young people or become quietly conservative on gay and lesbian issues. This advice, however, presumes that white evangelical Protestants will accept such an arrangement. Not only are white evangelical Protestants strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, they are also more confident that their position on the issue is right than other Americans, even Millennials. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say they are absolutely certain that their position on same-sex marriage is the right one. Nearly 8-in-10 (77%) white evangelicals report that their views on same-sex marriage have not changed in the last five years and those who report they have are as likely to say they have become more opposed (12%) as more supportive (9%). Not surprisingly, despite dramatically increasing public support for same-sex marriage over the last decade, support has increased only marginally among white evangelical Protestants since 2003 (12% to 24%).

Further, no group has been more critical to the success of Republican presidential candidates over the last two decades than white evangelical Christians. Nearly 8-in-10 (78%) white evangelical voters supported Romney in 2012, and they made up 43% of his total vote. [] White evangelical Protestants also play an outsized role in GOP nominating contests, particularly in key states like Iowa, South Carolina. In 2012, half of the primary voters and caucus goers identified as white evangelical Christians in the early states. And while the issue of same-sex marriage ranks fairly low on their list of priorities compared to other issues facing the country, it remains an important cultural touchstone. It's difficult to see how the 2016 GOP nominee will be able to get through the primary process without taking a strong position on the issue.

At the same time, the Millennial generation--which rivals the size of the Baby Boomer generation at approximately 46 million--will make up an even larger part of the electorate in 2016, making courting their votes an imperative. In 2012, Millennials were a vital part of Obama's coalition and an increasingly important constituency for Democratic candidates. Romney lost Millennial voters to Obama by a considerable margin (37% vs. 60%), while Democratic candidates enjoyed a similar margin of support over Republican candidates in House races. Given this, it is certainly not a coincidence that all the current front-runners for the Democratic nomination in 2016 are now on record supporting same-sex marriage.

The clash of cultures between Millennials and white evangelicals is bigger than just same-sex marriage. On a range of issues--marijuana legalization, views of immigrants and Muslims, belief in evolution--Millennials and white evangelicals occupy opposite sides of a cultural chasm that appears only to be getting wider and deeper. Yet, it is same-sex marriage that has become the litmus test issue for Democratic and Republican candidates. As the GOP charts a way forward, keeping a foothold on both sides of the cultural divide is going to be put national candidates in an increasingly uncomfortable position.

This piece has been updated with additional links after publication.

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