Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has a number of hurdles to overcome if he is to become the Republican nominee for president — including his service in President Obama’s administration as ambassador to China and his comparatively liberal positions on several issues.
But Mr. Huntsman’s positions on gay rights — while to the left of most of his opponents — are likely to be among the least of his concerns. In fact, Mr. Huntsman’s views on gay rights are very close to those of the typical Republican voter — closer than those of someone like Tim Pawlenty.
In 2009, Mr. Huntsman endorsed civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage. He is perhaps the most noteworthy potential Republican candidate to have done so, although the libertarian-leaning Gary Johnson shares his position, and a minor candidate, Fred Karger, supports full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.
(Several major Republican candidates, including Mr. Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and Michele Bachmann, explicitly oppose both civil unions and gay marriage, according to research compiled by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund. Others, like Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, are expressly opposed to gay marriage, but have ambiguous positions on civil unions.)
Mr. Huntsman’s position is routinely referred to as a liability by political columnists. The polling, however, presents another view.
The PollingReport.com database lists eight surveys since 2004 in which Republicans were asked to pick between three alternatives: gay marriage, civil unions, and no legal recognition. As with other types of voters, Republicans’ views on this issue are shifting.
According to the most recent survey — from CBS News in August 2010 — just 37 percent of Republican voters hold the position that gay couples should have no legal recognition. Instead, 59 percent of Republicans supported either civil unions or gay marriage.
No other survey has shown numbers that broke down quite like that, and the CBS poll may have been a modest outlier. The broader trend, nevertheless, suggests that only about 45 percent of the Republican electorate will be opposed to any form of legal recognition for gay couples by the time the first primaries take place in early 2012. That would put candidates like Mr. Daniels and Mr. Pawlenty — rather than Mr. Huntsman — in the minority among Republicans.
This does not mean that there is no risk at all for Mr. Huntsman. Civil unions had gained currency as a centrist alternative between gay marriage and no legal recognition. But both advocates and opponents of gay rights are increasingly turning their attention to marriage itself, meaning that everyone from Mr. Huntsman to President Obama may have to pick sides. In polls that present a choice between gay marriage and no legal recognition — with civil unions removed as an alternative — most Republican voters continue to gravitate toward the latter option, with 27 of Republican voters supporting gay marriage but 71 percent opposed in a recent CNN survey.
Another problem is the Republican calendar. The electorates in Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada contain an especially large number of religious conservatives. The one in New Hampshire does not — rather, it is among the most liberal Republican states. But Mitt Romney, a candidate to whom Mr. Huntsman bears some surface similarities, runs very strongly in New Hampshire, where he now resides. If Mr. Huntsman were unable to break through in either Iowa or New Hampshire, his odds of winning the Republican nomination would be remote.
Nevertheless, reporters — to say nothing of the candidates themselves — ought not to assume that Republican voters reflexively gravitate toward any and all positions against gay rights. Opinions on these issues are changing fairly rapidly, and the partisan divides are not as strong as those on economic policy.
A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 60 percent of Republicans — and 53 percent of self-described conservatives — support allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military. (Several Republican candidates opposed last year’s repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and Mr. Pawlenty has pledged to reinstate it if he becomes president.) And a near-consensus of Americans — 87 percent in a December 2008 Newsweek survey — support protecting gays and lesbians from employment discrimination, an area where several Republican candidates have ambiguous positions.
Nor are Republican voters interested in putting a large emphasis on gay rights. Even at the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of socially conservative activists, gay marriage barely registered as a priority in a survey of participants, with abortion, government spending and health care instead receiving top billing.
Some of the most conservative Republicans, like Ms. Bachmann and Rick Santorum, will no doubt try to make an issue of Mr. Huntsman’s views on gay rights. But it’s more likely to be his support for President Obama’s stimulus package, and his former support for a system of carbon caps, that will turn into major problems for him.