Here's Why So Many Politicians Don't Represent Their Constituents on Marriage Equality...

December 6th 2014

Mike Vainisi

There are 22 states where less than half of the population opposes same-sex marriage, and yet they've elected statewide politicians that oppose it, reports data scientist Daniel Hadley.

He wonders why this is the case. Why, for instance, do states with populations that largely favor same-sex marriage, as in New Jersey, Iowa, or Wisconsin, elect governors who oppose it?

I can think of a few possible reasons.

1. It's still a close issue in some states.

As Hadley points out, same-sex marriage is not an overwhelming favorite in all these places. In many southern states, for instance, opposition hovers just below 50%. In those states, coming out against gay marriage, while possibly a "minority" position, is still not very risky for politicians.

2. Voter turnout.

It's great if you support same-sex marriage. But if you don't vote, your support is worthless politically.

Only about 30% of Nevadans oppose same-sex marriage. But, last month's election saw the lowest voter turnout in Nevada's history. Those that did vote handed Republicans a big win -- a party that still opposes same-sex marriage. So, it's not enough to say people are not opposed. In order to matter, they have to actually show up to vote. Young people, the most supportive constituency of marriage equality, also had very low turnout in 2014.

3. Voters care more other issues.

Exit polls from last month's election told us that the economy is the top concern for voters. Not social issues like gay marriage and abortion. That makes sense when you look at the rest of the polling. Nationally, voters last month supported same-sex marriage, 49-48%. Yet, 53% chose Republicans to represent them in Congress. This means that, for many voters, opposition to same-sex marriage is not a deal-breaker. They'll still support a politician who opposes it. 

4. Money and endorsements

Money is key in American politics. If you're a Republican hoping to be a U.S. Senator, you'll have to fight through a primary against fellow Republicans in your state. To win, you have to convince more than just voters. Each Republican needs support from national donors who can give campaigns much-needed cash. Candidates also need help from conservative activists, whose endorsement goes a long way in a primary.

The result is that these candidates must cater to key conservative stakeholders, and that often requires they oppose gay marriage.

Further, Republican primary voters are more conservative than the rest of the state. Sure, less than 50% of North Carolinians oppose gay marriage. But it's a safe assumption that a much higher percentage of Republican Primary voters opposed same-sex marriage. 

The result? In order to get through the primary in most states, Republicans have to oppose same-sex marriage.