Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay voters shift slightly to GOP


Public opinion specialist Patrick Egan. Photo: Bob Roehr
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The number seemed startling: 31 percent of voters who identified as "gay, lesbian, bisexual" in a national exit poll on November 2 said they voted Republican. Just two years ago, only 19 percent voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Is the "gay vote" for Republicans really changed that much?

Is it really that large – 31 percent?

Keen News Service looked at the vote November 2 in precincts in heavily gay neighborhoods in six cities around the country. That data suggests the gay vote for Republicans was 26 percent. But that 26 percent represents a seven percent increase over how those same precincts voted in the 2006 midterm elections.

And when you consider that the national exit poll data was re-weighted a few days after the election so it would correspond with actual election results – meaning the estimate of the gay vote for Republicans is now calculated at 29 percent – then the two data sets are not that far off.

Furthermore, notes Patrick Egan, a public opinion specialist and professor at New York University, both sets of data show a relatively similar shift. Between 2006 and 2010, the exit poll data showed a shift of about five points toward voting Republican. The gay precinct data showed a shift of about seven points.

"The precinct data corroborates the exit poll data and indicates that gays joined the rest of the electorate in shifting slightly more toward Republicans in 2010," said Egan, who examined both sets of data.

And the gay vote shift between 2006 and 2010 was not so unusual.

"We saw shifts among every demographic group toward Republicans," he said, "and gays were among them."

The national exit poll data was collected by an independent firm, Edison Research, for a coalition of national news organizations called the National Election Pool. This year's data was based on information collected from 17,504 voters as they left 268 polling places around the country on November 2. To collect data from the many voters who vote absentee, by mail, or early, the researchers also interviewed another 1,601 voters by phone. How the gay or lesbian voter cast his or her ballot in the House race determined how they were scored in the exit poll. The re-weighted exit polling data can be viewed at CNN's website.

The gay precinct data was collected from election officials and/or their websites for Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Provincetown, San Francisco, and South Beach. Precincts were chosen in neighborhoods which local gay activists or newspaper editors had identified as heavily gay populated. The data covered a total of 20,882 voters in 34 precincts.

With the gay precinct data, one city, Boston, posed a problem because its House race involved an unopposed Democratic incumbent. However, a look at how gay precincts voted in the governor's race indicated a similar increase (6.7 percent) – from 13.9 percent Republican in 2006 to 20.6 percent in 2010.

Strengths, weaknesses

Both sets of data have their strengths and weaknesses. Exit polls capture a random sample but, when it comes to the lesbian, gay, and bisexual vote, tend to be more heavily bisexual. Vote tallies from heavily gay precincts can capture the actual vote of a much larger sample of people but tend to be more white, gay, male, metropolitan, and wealthy and are muddled by the votes of at least an equal number of heterosexuals.

Egan said it's hard to say which is "more accurate."

"Social scientists like to see lots of different pieces of evidence before coming to a firm conclusion about some kind of change," said Egan. "But the fact that we're seeing similar shifts in both [data sets], gives us much more confidence that a true change did happen between 2006 and 2010."

Other nuggets of information gleaned from the heavily gay precinct data include:

- South Beach precincts voted more strongly Republican than any of the other cities – 48.8 percent. The closest second was Dallas with 41.9 percent.

- San Francisco precincts had the strongest Democratic vote – 84.1 percent – with Provincetown in second with 83 percent.

- The biggest uptick in voting Republican occurred in South Beach, which increased its gay Republican vote by 13.4 percent.

- The biggest turnouts occurred in San Francisco – with 68 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Provincetown was second with 63.3 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

- There was virtually no change at all in voter turnout in gay precincts in 2010 compared to 2006  – 51.7 percent of registered voters in gay precincts turned out in 2010, compared to 51.5 percent in 2006.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in gay voting data, however, comes from looking at a chart published by the New York Times of all the national exit polling data collected which included "gay, lesbian, and bisexual" voter identification. It shows that the largest gay vote for Republicans was not in 2010, but in 1998. That's the year voters shifted away from Republicans, many believe because of the unpopularity of the Republican-led impeachment proceedings against Democratic President Bill Clinton. But that was also just two years after Congress passed – and Clinton signed – the Defense of Marriage Act, and the exit poll data showed that 33 percent of the gay vote went to Republicans.

In fact, the 29 percent for 2010 is not even the second highest gay vote for Republicans. That distinction came in 2000, when the exit polls indicated 32 percent of the gay vote went to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Interestingly, the lowest gay vote for Republicans came in 2008, when only 19 percent of gay voters supported McCain. The lowest gay Republican vote prior to that came in 1990, the first year the national exit poll sought to identify gay, lesbian, and bisexual voters. Voters overall gave only a slight edge to Democrats that year (52 to 48 percent), while gay voters issued a 78 percent to 22 percent preference for Democrats.

The majority of the gay vote this year was 69 percent Democratic, according to the re-weighted exit poll data (and 69.7 percent Democratic, according to the precinct data). That contrasted to voters overall, who went 54 percent Republican. But while all voters have swung back and forth between the two parties, the gay vote has consistently given the majority of its vote to the Democrats.

But there are questions that loom inside the data. Will the swing of gay voters toward Republicans again last for two election cycles – 2010 and 2012 – as it did in 1998 and 2000? Will the potential failure to pass repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" act like a catalyst for gay Republican voting as DOMA did in 1998? The numbers don't say.

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