Editors' Note: Kenneth Sherrill is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hunter College, CUNY. Over a long career, he has specialized in public opinion,
voting and elections, and the politics of equal rights.
I began studying the politics of LGBT rights in 1972 and, in 1984, I was elected as a Mondale delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In those days, we were a small and beleaguered minority. Few public opinion researchers were willing to ask any questions about LGBT people and many politicians were afraid to be associated with us - including many liberal Democrats. What little public opinion data were collected about LGBT rights indicated that most Americans thought that homosexuality was wrong and that large numbers of Americans wanted to deny us our most basic rights - including giving speeches and writing books that might be in public libraries.
Times have changed. As the Democratic Party gathers in convention in Charlotte, today, the delegates need to learn how much the party can gain from aggressively embracing full and equal rights for LGBT people. A path breaking new study conducted by Harris Interactive for Logo TV stands as dramatic evidence of the sea-change that has occurred in American politics. These data indicate that LGBT rights no longer are a wedge issue in American politics. Instead, a consensus is emerging that the government should act to end the inequality and discrimination that LGBT people have traditionally faced.
The Logo/Harris data also provide a fascinating picture of LGBT voters. This is made possible by the development of internet-based survey research. Most recent exit polls find that LGB voters account for about 4% of voters. In a typical telephone poll of 1,000 people, this would yield only 40 LGBT respondents - too few to analyze.
Over the past decade, internet-based interviews have enabled us to interview large and representative national samples of LGBT people. This method is used in scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed journals by researchers in all of the social sciences and for important work in fields such as public health.
The Logo/Harris study is based on a representative national sample of 1,190 LGBT likely voters and presents us with one of the best pictures we've had of the LGBT electorate to date. In addition, Logo/Harris collected data on a representative national sample of a cross-section of 1,367 likely voters, enabling us to compare LGBT voters with the larger public.
Dramatic Increase in Support for LGBT Rights
Two major themes emerge from these data. First, there has been a dramatic rise in public support for LGBT rights. Today, 52% of the Logo/Harris sample of likely voters supports legalization of same-sex marriage (70% of Democrats, 55% of independents, and 24% of Republicans). Only five years ago, in 2007, only 31% of a Harris Interactive sample of all adults supported it.
In fact, of the four policy areas about which Logo/Harris asked voters, marriage equality was the only one on which President Obama enjoyed majority approval. While 52% approved of the way he was handling gay rights and only 38% disapproved (10% said they didn't know), only 42% approved of his handling of unemployment and jobs (56% disapproved), with an identical proportion approving of his handling of the economy and 47% of his handling of health care (51% disapproved).
These data, by the way, are not based on public ignorance. 65% of the cross-section sees Obama as a strong ally of the LGBT community and 66% think that Obama will work to pass pro-gay rights legislation while only 3% think those phrases apply more to Mitt Romney.
The days when candidates needed to fear negative electoral consequences of supporting LGBT rights seem to be nearing an end. By better than a 4:1 ratio - 49% to 12% - the cross-section says they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legislation to define and prevent bullying of LGBT students. Similarly, 48% are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports laws to prevent workplace discrimination of gays and lesbians.
By a 2:1 margin - 41% to 19% - voters are more likely to support a candidate who would continue allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces. A candidate who supported adoption by gay parents benefits by a 3:2 margin - 36% to 23%.
Finally, candidates are better off supporting marriage equality - 38% to 31% with another 32% saying it would have no effect on their vote.
Don't Take LGBT Voters for Granted
Neither major party should take LGBT voters for granted. LGBT voters are not a "captured electorate" with nowhere to go. Instead they are a sophisticated group of voters, well-aware of each party's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to LGBT rights, and many are open to changing their loyalties in response to changing party positions.
LGBT voters pay close attention to politics and do not uncritically judge the parties and candidates. For example, LGBT voters are more likely to give credit to LGBT movement organizations than to President Obama for the progress that has been made in recent years. They are quite aware of how long it took for the President to "evolve" on these issues.
When asked if he was more of a leader than a follower on these issues, 46% said he was more of a follower and 39% said he was more of a leader. Fifteen percent said they weren't sure. When asked to give credit for the progress that has been made on LGBT rights over the past four years, 58% said it was all or mostly due to movement organizations and only 28% said it was all or mostly due to President Obama.
President Obama, of course, is much more positively perceived than Mitt Romney. As V. O. Key, Jr., the great student of parties and elections, taught us, "The voters are not fools". Eighty percent of LGBT respondents said that of the two presidential candidates, Obama would be more supportive of LGBT rights and only 4% said Romney. When asked what the effect of a Romney administration would be for LGBT Americans, 74% of LGBTs said it would be somewhat or very negative (60% said very negative).
LGBT Votes May Become Available to Both Parties
Why, then, are LGBTs not necessarily a captured electorate, a group of voters who can be taken for granted by one party because they have nowhere else to go? After all, the Republican Party is hardly a welcoming home for LGBT people.
The answer is to be found in political science's standard explanation for the development of party identification: transmission from parent to child.
For more than a generation, LGBT voters have been one of the four groups of voters most supportive of the Democratic Party, along with African-Americans, Jews, and Latinos. Unlike the other three groups, LGBT people rarely have group identity transmitted from parent to child. In fact, everything we know tells us that Republican parents are as likely to have children who grow up to be LGBT as are Democratic parents. Unlike African-Americans, Jews, and Latinos, LGBT children probably are not as likely to grow up in Democratic homes and will develop their partisanship later in life. My own research indicates that this transformation is most likely to occur during the coming out years.
Why does this happen? No doubt, it reflects the Republican Party's overt hostility to equal rights for LGBT people. The Logo/Harris poll gives us some tantalizing data on the subject.
50% of the LGBT respondents say they are Democrats while 30% are independents and only 20% say they are Republicans. The Logo/Harris pollsters presented the respondents with a fascinating counterfactual: What if there were no differences between the parties on LGBT rights? Asked what they would do if Romney and the Republicans were to adopt the same positions on gay rights as Obama and the Democrats, about a quarter of LGBT voters would move to the Republican side. 22% say they would be more likely to vote for Romney and 26% say they would be more likely to vote Republican.
Consciousness, Identity, and Shared Fate
Interestingly, the largest number of these potential switchers came from LGBT likely voters who said they were independents. They also tend to be voters who say they are LGBT but who place a higher priority on economic issues. In other words, the LGBT voters who are most available to the Republicans are those members of our community who are less likely to have not developed a heightened sense of LGBT consciousness and identity and who are less likely to have developed a sense of shared fate with their LGBT brothers and sisters.
As is the case with all minority groups, not all members identify with the group with equal intensity. Just as the Republicans make some effort to appeal to the other groups that are most Democratic - Jews, Latinos, even African-Americans - the Republicans must learn to appeal to LGBT voters on the basis of promises that Republicans in office will pursue policies that will be good for the LGBT people.
And, frankly, this will be good for the LGBT people. If the Republicans were to act rationally and make a serious effort to get LGBT votes, Democrats would have to be better. Our community can only benefit when both parties fight for our votes and the new Logo/Harris data demonstrate that it's in the rational self-interest of both parties to compete for LGBT voters.