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Winning With No One: Social Conservatism in an Age of Low Turnout

In June of 2015, when the Supreme Court finally legalized same-sex marriage, many activists began celebrating the end of the culture wars. But while many view the court’s decision as the death knell to social conservatism, narrowly winning over five justices is a far cry from winning over an entire nation. And the results of this month’s elections may prove that not only is social conservatism alive and well, but it can thrive under the right conditions: low voter turnout and a clear-cut cause around which to rally.

The Democratic Party has increasingly adopted liberal social positions as of late, seizing especially on the issues of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights to cast the GOP as retrograde with phrases like the “War on Women” or the now widespread notion on the left that Democrats have won the culture war. Partly in light of Millennials’ particularly liberal social views and young people’s importance as a an electoral constituency overall, the left has sought to turn cultural positions into wedge issues in their favor, similar to what social conservatives tried to do for the past several decades on the right. In an age of high-profile social progressivism, from Obergefell v. Hodges to a peak in support for legalizing marijuana, Democrats have taken the offensive on social issues in the belief that they enjoy majority support. But when Obama is not on the ballot, the cultural stances of liberals enjoy considerably less success. Democrats may be tempted to dismiss the setbacks experienced this November as the result of low turnout, but this constitutes only a palliative excuse; not every election is presidential, and low turnout renders the outcomes of elections no less impactful.

The Kentucky election illustrated that when economics fails to appeal to voters, social issues and religion-couched rhetoric can still work to sway an election, especially one with low turnout. While Republican Matt Bevin had pledged to run a campaign based on economic issues after he won the GOP nomination, by the fall it was clear that this wasn’t working. He was lagging just a few points behind his opponent and looked as though he may have lost what should have been an easy pick-up opportunity for the state GOP.

But in the final weeks of the campaign, Bevin seemingly experienced a change of heart on policy priorities and began talking about Kim Davis and liberal judicial overreach rather than the merits of spending and tax cuts. In his own words, “This is what moves people.” And on November third, it certainly did move some socially conservative voters to the polls, as a race that most considered to lean Democratic resulted in an eight point victory for Bevin. Social conservatism certainly wasn’t all that was at play, but in a race where turnout stood at a dismal 30 percent, those votes could make the difference. And when social issues did enter the conversation, they weren’t boosting liberals, no matter what the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage might imply about progressivism in the US.

An even clearer example came from Houston when voters directly voted down an equal rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination against 15 protected classes, including age, race, sexual orientation and gender identity, known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The measure had the backing of the business community and most of the local government, and was even leading in the polls prior to the vote. Nonetheless, in part due to a conservative coalition that played upon fears of trans people and the notion that the ordinance would allow “perverts” and “the mentally ill” to use the women’s restroom as a location for assault, it failed by a wide margin of nearly 2-1. Just as in Kentucky, a close race in which Democrats and their favored issues were ahead in the polls ultimately went the way of social conservatives by a solid margin. In these low turnout elections that favor older, more socially conservative voters who show up at the polls even when their young, more socially liberal counterparts don’t, the results are consistent. In fairness, the DNC has recently made some progress toward rectifying the disparity between presidential and off-year elections in terms of both turnout and the skewed Republican results, but so far the efforts have been mostly lacking, and the Party appears to still have a long way to go.

As further evidence of this, in Ohio, voters resoundingly rejected an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, an issue that began to gain momentum after voters approved legalization in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. It is worth noting that factors beyond social conservatism affected the outcome at the polls; in particular, the organizational apparatus that Issue 3 would have instituted, bestowing the exclusive right to cultivate marijuana upon a cartel of investors backing the legalization measure, rankled voters. Ohio was asked to jump from prohibition to legalization without passing through the middle ground of medical marijuana, in which the other states to consider legalization have all initiated their progression on marijuana policy. In the words of University of Cincinnati’s David Niven, “We are not California. We’re not the vanguard of hippiedom . . . It’s a leap to go from no legal marijuana to full legal marijuana.” And certainly, Buddie, the initiative’s superhero-like mascot with a head shaped like a marijuana bud, did little to endear Issue 3 to more conservative voters.

But perhaps most importantly, legalization was on the ballot in an off-year election, when every other state to legalize marijuana has capitalized on the higher voter turnout of even-year contests. Facing an older and more conservative electorate than that attracted by high-profile elections, comprised of voters who tend to be far less amenable to legalization, Issue 3 became another casualty of low turnout and the attendant resistance to social liberalism.

Even as abortion remains legal (though not free from attempts at restriction), support for same-sex marriage and legal marijuana remain at all time highs, and the 2016 race seems less centered on social conservatism than some recent election cycles, the nation’s present cultural leanings do not mean that social conservatives have lost power or that their voices won’t be heard. Instead, social conservative activists have learned to play their hand and strike when few are looking, or for that matter, voting. Low turnout elections that the majority of the electorate seems unaware of or uninterested in are opportunities social conservatives have come to take advantage of, rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, fighting marijuana legalization, and pushing back against what they see as a tide of social liberalism forced upon the nation by out-of-touch Democrats. Liberals may be content to rest on their laurels given the current state of play, a world in which same-sex marriage has gone from a toxic issue to political winner in less than a decade and the “War on Women” has become an oft-repeated slogan for beleaguered Democrats in battleground states. But that world is one in which the majorities that support socially liberal issues show up to vote. If they don’t, then liberals may have little to celebrate in the near future.