All 'Social Issues' Are Not Created Equal

Young voters' support for marriage equality doesn't translate into support for abortion.

By + More
(Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis conducted a 11-hour-long filibuster of the state's anti-abortion bill Tuesday night.

Last week, the Supreme Court gave supporters of same-sex marriage a lot to celebrate. The two rulings issued by the Court – striking down the Defense of Marriage act and declining to intervene in a lower court's overturn of California's Proposition 8 – were hailed as progress by advocates of marriage equality. In the same 24-hour span, however, controversy also erupted in Texas over a dramatic filibuster of a bill that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks and would place new requirements on abortion clinics.

With same-sex marriage and abortion taking center stage in last week's news, it was easy to lump both under the broad "social issues" umbrella. Indeed, the oft-repeated conventional wisdom is that conservatives are losing young voters primarily because of "the social issues" and that a leftward shift is necessary to win elections in the future.

The data beg to differ.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

It's certainly the case that younger voters are more supportive of same-sex marriage, with two-thirds of millennials in favor compared to just slightly over a third of those born before 1945 according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet on abortion, the situation changes. In 2011, the Public Religion Institute released an in-depth study on the complicated attitudes millennials hold on abortion, finding that while they are much stronger supporters of same-sex marriage, "they are not significantly more likely than the general public to support the legality of abortion," and that "millennials have largely positive top-of-mind associations with same-sex marriage but have largely negative top-of-mind associations with abortion."

What causes this split? The Public Religion Institute report points out a number of factors that influence attitudes on abortion, including the finding that, when controlling for demographic factors, those who have recently seen an ultrasound are less likely to support the legality of abortion. They note the fact that "young Americans are significantly more likely than older Americans to report seeing an ultrasound."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

All of which makes the findings of a recent National Journal poll unsurprising: voters aged 18-29 were much more likely than those over age 50 to say they would support a ban on most abortions at the 20-week mark. The poll also found that women are more likely to support the ban than men, and that independents are much closer to Republicans on the issue than Democrats.

It's true that the GOP has a significant amount of work to do shedding its brand as old-fashioned and out of touch with the millennial generation. But it's also true that vocal Democratic support for abortion after 20 weeks of gestation is unlikely to endear that party to the youth vote. Perhaps it's time for pundits to stop discussing "the social issues" as if they are all the same.

  • Read Susan Milligan: NSA Leaker Snowden's Search for Asylum in Russia and Ecudaor
  • Read Stephanie Slade: Opponents of Onamacare Think Health Care Costs Will Rise
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad