Over the holidays, I got into an extended discussion with my Twitter buddy Xenocrypt about the likely impact on the 2016 election of three “hot” issues: same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and surveillance by the National Security Agency. Ironically, in a time of great material want, all are “postmaterialist” concerns. Same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization are highly partisan issues, much more popular with liberals and Democrats than with conservatives and Republicans. By contrast, NSA surveillance is the rare controversial issue that does not split the public along party lines. (Although Republicans have become somewhat skeptical than are Democrats – a striking shift from the post-9/11 era). It is also much more obviously relevant to the presidency than the other two, which will mostly be settled at the state level (unless the Supreme Court declares a right to same-sex marriage). All three issues seem more relevant to the “policy demanders” that help determine party nominations than to typical voters.

So here is how I envision these three issues playing out in the 2016 election, both in the nomination season and in the general:

Same-Sex Marriage

Likely Impact on Democrats: Low. The battle for gay rights within the Democratic Party has been won. Every plausible Democratic presidential contender backs same-sex marriage and all other conceivable items on the LGBT agenda. Hillary Clinton might be criticized for not publicly backing SSM until last year, but that would require implicitly criticizing both her husband and Barack Obama, two very popular people among Democratic voters.

Likely Impact on Republicans: Medium. Despite the tolerant attitudes of many GOP elites, ambitious Republicans must cater to the much more anti-gay views of the party rank-and-file, as well illustrated by the recent Duck Dynasty imbroglio. No Republican presidential contender will endorse same-sex marriage. But Chris Christie will be criticized for essentially allowing same-sex marriage to happen in New Jersey by dropping his state’s appeal of a court ruling. Meanwhile, some Republican candidate (Rick Santorum? Ted Cruz? Rick Perry?) will run as the one who “really means this shit,” as one segregationist said of Strom Thurmond. Most candidates will fall somewhere into the middle: they’ll oppose SSM, declare it to be a state issue, and will defend opponents of gay rights against charges of bigotry. But they will also try to use temperate language, wary of saying anything that could be used against them in the general election.

Likely Impact on General Election: Medium. The public is clearly moving toward overwhelming acceptance of same-sex marriage. While it is possible that the Supreme Court will render the issue moot, the 2016 election will almost certainly pit a pro-SSM Democrat against an anti-SSM Republican. Most voters who care about this issue, one way or another, are strong partisans who will know how they will vote from the beginning of the campaign. But there are some signs that younger Millennials, who don’t remember George W. Bush, are less Democratic than their older siblings. Young Americans, however, are overwhelmingly supportive of gay rights. The Democrats will probably use the issue, at least to motivate these folks to show up at the polls, and perhaps to portray the Republicans as an unacceptable option. Will the Republican nominee back the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to show tolerance without backing SSM? Or just talk about how many gay friends he has?


Likely Impact on Democrats: Medium. There’s no organized group backing legalization that has the clout of the gay lobby. (No, NORML doesn’t count). But liberal Democratic voters tend to be more supportive of legalizing pot. With her maternal image, Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t seem likely to back legalization. This provides an obvious opportunity for a liberal challenger. But it wouldn’t be hard for her to drift towards a federalist approach. Which is what I suspect she’ll do.

Likely Impact on Republicans: Low. Republican voters remain hostile to legalization. Rand Paul has backed away from his support, though he continues to express skepticism of the drug war. No other likely Republican contender seems likely to back legalization.

Likely Impact on General Election: Low. It’s an easy issue to pass off to the states. I suspect both nominees will back a federalist approach, with the Democrat probably expressing more sympathy for those who support legalization. The experiences of Colorado and Washington State will probably have significant impact.


Likely impact on Democrats: Medium. Surveillance by the National Security Agency is not a partisan issue, nor is it highly salient to most voters, but it does matter more to politically aware, college-educated voters. Candidates may not hear about the NSA in town hall meetings, but they will get earfuls from caucusgoers in college towns or attendees at Silicon Valley fundraisers. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Joe Biden may find it difficult to please Edward Snowden fans, when both have been at the top of an administration now strongly identified with electronic surveillance. The issue could provide an easy opportunity for a liberal insurgent to build support, especially with the sort of activists likely to pay attention early in the process. But the Democratic nominee will probably call for NSA reform, while avoiding direct criticism of Barack Obama.

Likely impact on Republicans: High. Rand Paul has taken the lead in criticism of the NSA, perhaps more than any other senator of either party. By contrast, Chris Christie has taken a strongly hawkish line on foreign policy, and will probably be surrounded by advisors who share those views. Nor does he seem the sort to scale back executive power. Given that both men seem almost certain to run for president, Republican presidential debates should feature a much livelier discussion of foreign policy than usual. I suspect any other Republican candidates will position themselves somewhere between Paul and Christie: sounding tough on terrorism, while finding ways to use the NSA to slam Obama. Republican elites (much more so than the rank-and-file) have little use for Paul’s views, and will make that clear, especially if he criticizes George W. Bush. On the other hand, will Tea Party groups make NSA surveillance a litmus test?

Likely impact on General Election: Low. NSA surveillance is much more relevant to the presidency than either same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization. But unless Rand Paul becomes the Republican nominee, it’s doubtful that either party will be running someone who feels particularly comfortable with this issue. Nor do aspirants for the presidency generally want to reduce the power the office holds. I also suspect that neither party has policy demanders that will successfully pressure candidates to take clear-cut positions on the NSA. Probably both the Democratic and Republican nominees will promise NSA reform, while avoiding anything that would reduce executive power all that much. Few swing voters will care that much about the issue, anyway.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.