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Gay marriage continues to divide Republicans, as GOP seeks ways to win youth

As the country “evolves” on the issue of gay marriage, Republicans are taking a closer look once again at the political reality of officially opposing it -- particularly in terms of the youth vote.

College Republicans put a number to it, Monday. Their national committee’s post-election report said one-quarter of voters ages 18-29 said that that they could not vote for a politician who opposed same-sex marriage. (This figure is based on two national surveys with 800 registered voters in that age group in addition to sessions with six focus groups of young voters considered “winnable” for the GOP, including Hispanics and Asian Americans.)

The report, which stayed away from specific policy recommendations, comes as support for gay marriage continues to climb. Overall, 53 percent of voters now say they support same-sex marriage, according to an April NBC News/WSJ poll. But there is a sizable gulf between Democrats (73 percent support) and Republicans (66 percent oppose). But when it comes to younger voters, they overwhelmingly support it; 64 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds favor it, while 29 percent oppose.

The December “Growth and Opportunity” report by the Republican National Committee, seen as an autopsy of what went wrong with the 2012 election, also alluded to gay marriage as a potential problem for the GOP in trying to appeal to younger voters.

“On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters,” the report read. “In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; many see them as the civil rights issues of our time. We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters.”

But the RNC’s recommendations were met with opposition from socially conservative groups, which pointed out that the party’s official platform stands against same-sex marriage.

“We believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage,” the platform reads.

Thirteen prominent groups issued a letter to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, rebuking him for a perceived “abandonment of principles.” They asked that he confirm the party platform in opposition to gay marriage, by ordering a fresh resolution.

Priebus complied.

At the RNC’s quarterly meeting in Los Angeles the following week, the 168-member RNC voted unanimously to reaffirm the platform.

“The only reason that we see support among young voters falling on the marriage issue is that there aren’t enough public advocates explaining why it matters,” contended Ryan T. Anderson, who writes about marriage and religious liberty for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Anderson and others want conservatives to “redouble efforts” to prevent gay marriage, because, as Anderson sees it, what’s driving the change is young voters’ perception that Republicans who oppose gay marriage are wrongly involved in the romantic lives of consenting adults. That’s not the case, Anderson said, arguing that he and others are concerned with keeping biological families together.

“The political community is concerned with making sure that the man and a woman, who created a child, commit to each other and then take responsibility for the child,” he said. “That’s what [traditional] marriage does.”

Sam Bain, outgoing state chairman of the Ohio College Republican Federation -- who said he personally believes in traditional marriage, but doesn't believe the government should have any role -- said that, if there is a change in the party, it will come when the next generation is in power.

“Youth will drive any change that comes about as opposed to the establishment of the party,” he said.

To that point, as Anderson noted, and polling shows, young Republicans are increasingly breaking away from the party on the issue. A Pew survey released in March, for example, found that 37 percent of young Republicans support same-sex marriage, as opposed to just 26 percent of the party overall.

While he does not necessarily think a policy change in favor of gay marriage is in order, Bain said he has noticed it is not as galvanizing an issue for his members.

“It might turn some people off,” he said, “but I think the youth are more open. I don’t think it would turn a number off.”

Even among those who oppose gay marriage, a majority – 59 percent – see legalization as “inevitable,” according to a survey released, Thursday, by Pew; that’s compared to 72 percent all totaled who say legalization is going to happen.

Crystal Benton, a member of the Young Conservatives Leadership Committee for Freedom to Marry -- a pro-same-sex marriage group of which Meghan McCain and Jon Huntsman’s daughters are part -- feels more strongly than Bain. Benton said she thinks younger voters --many of whom have gay friends or family members -- see a stance against gay marriage as discriminatory and that communicating the old message differently won’t matter.

“Saying we’re for family values, bolstered by marriage, but then adding, ‘But not for you,’ is no way for our party to lead,” Benton said. “And it’s certainly no way to win.”