Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, there were signs of panic in the social conservative ranks. Billy Graham, the evangelical Pope, had broken with his largely apolitical legacy and published a thinly veiled endorsement of Romney (PDF), citing abortion and gay marriage. Maggie Gallagher, marriage equality’s leading foe, warned that the 2012 election could be the end of social conservatism as a major force in the Republican coalition. “If Romney wins—and I think he will—look for an intense effort to finally push social issues out of the party,” she wrote.
Not only did Romney lose, but the social conservative agenda suffered a crushing, systematic defeat Tuesday night. Voters re-elected the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage Obama. Maryland, Washington and Maine became the first states to approve gay marriage by ballot initiative, and Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban it. Iowa voters beat back a ferocious attempt to unseat a state supreme court justice who voted to make gay marriage legal there in 2009. Two high-profile Republican senate candidates who ran on social conservatism, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, were quickly and soundly defeated.
Tuesday made official the irreversible momentum of marriage equality in the United States. Gay marriage recently earned a slight majority of the American public’s support, but had yet to win a victory at the ballot box, relying mostly on battles in state courts and legislatures. On Election Day, voters proved they were ready to decide for themselves—and in the cases of Maryland and Minnesota, to halt attempts to establish heterosexual marriage as the exclusive legal definition.
This isn’t just bad news for those who care about “traditional marriage,” it is bad news for their marriage to the Republican Party. Social conservatives never trusted Romney, who, until he became a presidential candidate, held quite liberal views on abortion and gay rights. His nomination itself, not to mention his last-minute race to the center, proved exactly what social conservatives deeply fear about the Republican Party: it will always ditch them and their values the instant it becomes politically expedient. The two have lately seemed to get closer; in 2010, the GOP opened its arms to scores of candidates from the far corners the religious right because of how effectively they combined their religion with Tea Party-style anti-government dogma. But in the shadow of Obama’s win, this looks increasingly foolish: the Obama team successfully turned the fringe social views of GOP candidates into a major issue in the campaign, one that had an impact with female voters. And thanks to the religious right, the GOP lost two red-state Senate seats it could have won.
After Romney’s crushing loss, the urge to shed the party’s ideological albatrosses will, as Gallagher predicted, lead to fresh tensions with social conservatives. Most Republicans accept that their party depends on a shrinking share of the electorate, and that broadening the base is imperative. Social conservatism is part of the shriveling slice of the pie that the GOP must somehow transcend. Young voters, including young Republicans, are overwhelmingly pro-gay marriage and largely pro-choice; female voters, particularly single ones, are deeply hostile to their reproductive choices being dictated by male politicians. The American electorate as a whole is slowly but surely turning more secular, making them skeptical of religion getting too mixed up in politics.
In less than a decade, religion-fueled social issues have gone from election-winning wedge issues to election-losing liabilities. After Tuesday, we can expect to see the GOP begin to take seriously what it’s gotten itself into, though change certainly won’t come overnight. It’s likely that the 2016 Republican presidential nominee will go even farther than Romney to assure centrist voters that he will not outlaw abortion or restrict the rights of gays and lesbians.
There will be many bitter arguments over why Romney failed, and what it will take for the GOP to compete in a country that is gradually turning bluer on social issues. The evangelical base won’t go quietly, but it, too, is aging and increasingly in transition. As the GOP tries to build a coalition bigger than old white people can offer in 21st-century America, it will have plenty of opportunities to own social and cultural issues in ways that appeal to centrist voters and stand in contrast to the Democrats. But if the 2012 election proved anything, it’s that those new strategies won’t come out of the old religious right playbook.