Rob Portman and Gay Marriage in 2016

Senator Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio, came out last week in support of same-sex marriage. Portman, who had previously opposed gay marriage, reconsidered his position after learning is son his gay.

Portman’s op-ed is heartfelt, and reflects several truths of same-sex politics: having gay friends and family has a profound effect on your views, and there is a strong case to be made that extending the traditional institution of marriage to gay couples is a fundamentally conservative position.

Thinking about presidential politics at this moment may seem boorish, but that’s what we do. Portman, who is from a key battleground state, was considered a serious contender to be Mitt Romney’s running mate. How does this announcement affect his possible run for the presidency in 2016?

Chris Cillizza, blogging for the Washington Post, uses this moment to declare: “The political debate on gay marriage is effectively over.” I think this is true for the Democrats, especially after President Obama’s public support for gay marriage didn’t impact his reelection. And current trends indicate that, by 2020, this issue will be off the table. But Mitt Romney, and the 2012 Republican platform, opposed same-sex marriage. Despite the prevailing political winds, it will take the Republican party more than four years to evolve on the issue.

Primaries always force candidates to appeal to their party’s most committed members by staking out positions that are farther from the middle. This suggests that Portman, should he choose to run, would have difficulty navigating the gauntlet of Republican primaries in conservative states. Current polls indicate that only 26% of Republicans support gay marriage.

Portman’s chances, however, might not be that dire. Iowa, usually the first state to vote on Republican candidates, is known to be socially conservative, and has supported candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But Iowa allows same-sex marriage, and a poll from last month indicates that 46% of the public supports gay marriage, while 43% opposes it. These numbers are undoubtedly different among participants in the Iowa Republican caucus, but another four years might soften some of this opposition.

New Hampshire is another early Republican primary, and another state that allows gay marriage. A recent poll found the only 28% of residents want to see same-sex marriage repealed. In recent years, John McCain and Mitt Romney have used wins to New Hampshire to build momentum going into the rest of the primary season, and Portman seems well positioned to do the same.

Portman would still face tough tests in important states like Florida and South Carolina. Florida residents, according to a poll from last December, oppose same-sex marriage, 45% to 43%. In South Carolina, the percentage opposed climbs to 62%.

The important question is how big a role same-sex marriage will have in the 2016 election. The Tea Party, and politicians like Rand Paul, has succeeded in shifting the current political debate to an argument about the proper role of the federal government. Interestingly, Paul is able to dodge the gay marriage question by arguing that the federal government should have no role in defining marriage.

It might be tempting for a candidate like Marco Rubio to court Republican voters concerned about social issues, and who might be turned off by Rand’s libertarianism, by playing up his opposition to same-sex marriage. Rubio did just that to some extent at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), although CPAC often brings out the most conservative side of Republican politicians.

Portman is an appealing candidate, especially because he could help secure Ohio, a key battleground state that Obama only won by only 2 percentage points. Portman’s position on same-sex marriage could make him attractive to a moderate electorate that increasingly supports such marriages. His position could also humanize him, something Romney failed to do in his own presidential bid.

Republican leaders undoubtedly took note that the primaries forced Romney into political positions that he had a hard time defending in the general election. If GOP leaders choose to shape the party’s dialogue, and its primary schedule, in a way that gives candidates like Rob Portman a chance, they might find themselves with a much more competitive candidate in 2016.