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Republican attacks on LGBTQ lives may have helped elect Democrats

On abortion and LGBTQ issues, the U.S. is increasingly dividing into two nations: one that restricts and one that protects autonomy on sexuality and gender

- December 16, 2022

On Dec. 13, 2022, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which grants federal protections for same-sex and interracial couples if the Supreme Court strikes down its decisions requiring states to perform and recognize such marriages. While marriage equality is broadly popular, passage may well have been influenced by the fact that LGBTQ voters have become a powerful voting bloc for Democrats, who still control both the House and Senate.

That control will shift in January 2023, when Republicans take control of the House after a midterm election. But their control will be slight — and LGBTQ voters probably limited their success.

LGBTQ voters have become a larger voting bloc — and they strongly lean toward Democrats

That voting bloc has grown over the past 30 years. In the early 1990s, voters who identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual to exit pollsters made up 3 percent of the electorate; by 2022, 7 to 8 percent of voters identified themselves as LGBT. That expansion is consistent with the increasing proportion of U.S. adults identifying as LGBT.

Much as in previous elections, LGBT-identified voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. AP VoteCast found that 73 percent said they did so; National Election Pool (NEP) found 84 percent said they did so. Meanwhile, both sources found that 53 percent of non-LGBT-identified voters supported Republican candidates. Had LGBTQ voters stayed home, some tight races would probably have had quite different results.

Republicans have increased their attacks on LGBTQ identities and rights

Why might LGBTQ voters flock so overwhelmingly toward Democrats? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in this year’s Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade that the court should also undo legal decisions affirming the marriage rights of same-sex couples. Other signs suggest that the court’s conservative majority, all appointed by Republicans, will limit LGBTQ rights in upcoming cases.

Meanwhile, in the past two years, numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures and Republican governors backed anti-transgender and anti-gay laws and regulations. That included Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to child welfare agencies to investigate parents who affirm their child’s transgender identity. And it included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” law that bans any mention of LGBTQ lives in schools, defining that as predatory propaganda.

Meanwhile, prominent conservatives and Republicans have been using harsh rhetoric against any support for LGBTQ people. For instance, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) has referred to drag performers as child predators, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson has called on his viewers to attack anyone who supports gender-affirming health care for transgender youth or allowing school libraries to include books with LGBTQ characters.

Prominent rhetoric like this has been linked with increases in anti-LGBTQ extremist threats and attacks like those against pride events, drag shows, hospitals with gender clinics and Club Q in Colorado Springs.

Attacking LGBTQ rights did not help Republicans in the 2022 election and may have backfired

In the most recent election, at least 21 candidates and political action committees running in 16 states ran anti-transgender television ads as part of their campaigns. Many lost their races, including Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, and Herschel Walker in Georgia; other anti-transgender candidates lost school board elections. Some political commentators have questioned whether focusing on transgender youth was winning over voters. However, others won, including Abbott in Texas, DeSantis in Florida, Gov. Kevin Stitt in Oklahoma, Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia and Gov. Bill Lee in Tennessee.

At the same time, a new “rainbow wave” brought a historically high number of out LGBTQ candidates into office. Some newly elected transgender candidates even said anti-LGBTQ politics motivated them to run for office.

Abortion mattered to more voters than did LGBTQ rights — but LGBTQ rights mattered a lot to some

Protecting abortion rights pushed more voters to the polls than did any of the rhetoric against LGBTQ lives. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s analysis of AP VoteCast data, about 4 in 10 voters said that the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade strongly influenced their decision about whether to go to the polls. According to the NEP, 60 percent of voters said abortion should be legal, and of these voters, 73 percent supported the Democratic candidate. Among the 37 percent of voters who said that abortion should be illegal, 89 percent supported the Republican candidate.

In the NEP poll, voters were also asked whether societal values about sexual orientation and gender identity were changing for the better, worse or neither. Voters divided on this: Fifty percent said values have changed for the worse, while the other half perceived either no change or saw change for the better. Those who said society was changing for the worse overwhelmingly said they supported Republican candidates; those who said for the better or neither overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates.

When I conducted a statistical comparison to see which issue appears to have influenced vote choices, abortion came up the clear winner. I did this by comparing the joint roles race, gender, and opinions about LGBT topics or abortion had on predicting vote choices. Both opinions about abortion and LGBT topics outperformed gender or race in predicting vote choices; however, views on abortion played a stronger role than LGBT topics. The Dobbs decision appears to have been a political earthquake, changing the results of the 2022 midterms. However, anti-LGBTQ politics appears to be mobilizing more LGBTQ voters than voters who oppose LGBTQ rights.

What next?

These two trends — advances in and attacks on LGBTQ rights — are part of the larger emerging divide into two different Americas. Republican-leaning states like Idaho, Alabama and South Dakota have enacted or are considering anti-LGBTQ bills this and next year. In Democratic-leaning states — including California, where LGBTQ members make up over 10 percent of the legislature — governments are likely to enact policies protecting LGBTQ people. That’s true even though LGBTQ people live all across the United States.

The divide between abortion restrictions and abortion protections looks quite similar, as conservative states move to restrict individual autonomy on sexuality and gender more broadly while liberal states work to protect that autonomy.

In other words, Americans may be in for more of the same.

Andrew R. Flores (@DrAndrewFlores) is an assistant professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.