Press

Power At The Polls: Groundbreaking New Survey Paints Portrait Of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Vote

Date: 
April 25, 1996

Now that the primary season is effectively over, the major political parties are planning election strategy. Which states and constituencies will bring victory? Which states and voters need attention? And which can be written off?

But a new survey, released today by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), for the first time paints a portrait of a political constituency that Democrats and Republicans ignore at their own risk.

"Power At the Polls: The Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Vote" is based on exit polling data from the 1992 and 1994 elections. The data was originally collected by Voter News Service (VNS), a major national polling organization, and until now has remained largely untapped by the media. The report was produced by the NGLTF Policy Institute. NGLTF is a non-partisan organization. The gay vote survey is an analysis of gay, lesbian and bisexual voter demographics, political persuasions and voting patterns. It provides the first statistically reliable picture of self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual voters.

"We are releasing this report at this critical time because gay issues have exploded into the 1996 presidential campaign in an unprecedented way," said John D'Emilio, NGLTF Policy Institute director and author of the report. "After a generation of coming out of the closet, gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans are flocking to the polling booths."

The VNS 1992 exit polling data is based on a nationally representative sample of 15,488 voters. The poll allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals to identify themselves for the first time in a presidential election. Some of the major findings include:

Gay, lesbian and bisexual self-identified voters constituted 3.2 percent of the total voting population in the 1992 elections. That is roughly the size of the national Latino vote in the same year, more than double the size of the Asian vote, and slightly less than the Jewish vote. It's also as large as the old staple of American politics, the family farm vote. "Because we know that fear still keeps the majority of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals in the closet, this figure of 3.2 percent must be considered a floor rather than a ceiling, and a basement floor at that," said D'Emilio. "In other words, the total number of these voters is certain to be higher than three percent and is likely to be considerably higher."

The gay, lesbian and bisexual vote can be decisive in urbanized states. The self-identified gay vote is not evenly distributed throughout the population, but instead is heavily concentrated in cities. In towns with a population between 5,000 and 10,000 people, the self-identified vote is slightly more than one percent. But in cities with populations between 250,000 and 500,000, the figure rises to more than eight percent. "As time goes on and more small-town residents come out, this figure will grow. But the urban concentration means the gay, lesbian and bisexual vote can be the margin of victory in key states," said D'Emilio. "It can also make the critical difference in many Congressional races and in state and local elections as well." D'Emilio points out that eleven states with urban areas and well-organized and visible gay, lesbian and bisexual communities -- such as California, New York, Illinois, Michigan and others -- together provide 49 percent of the total electoral vote. Add any two other states, and a candidate wins the presidency.

The self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual vote is also a younger vote, and will inevitably grown in size. "Because of the changes provoked in American life by the gay and lesbian movement, younger votes are significantly more likely to self-identify than are older voters," said D'Emilio. In comparison to the overall voting population, the self-identified vote is underrepresented in the older-than-60 group, is concentrated in the under-40 group, and is represented especially heavily among voters younger than 30. "Gay voters already constitute five percent of the under-30 voters," said D'Emilio. "As our issues continue to have high visibility in national and state politics, there is every reason to believe the proportion of self-identified voters will get larger over time."

The gay, lesbian and bisexual voter displays a clear political profile. The polling data shows the gay voter leans heavily toward liberal positions on key issues. The gay voter is more likely to favor more government services and higher taxes to pay for them; downplay the importance of deficit reduction; support greater access to health care; blame government neglect rather than a decline in moral values for social problems; believe that government should encourage tolerance of diverse value systems; and support continued legalization of abortion. "In other words, this is the profile of a politically progressive constituency," said D'Emilio.

The survey also details who gay voters vote for. In 1992, Clinton received 43 percent of the total popular vote, but 72 percent of the gay, lesbian and bisexual vote. Only Jewish voters and African-American voters provided Clinton with larger margins. The gay vote for Clinton surpassed the percentage of votes he received among union households and Latinos.

But, cautions D'Emilio, the gay vote is not guaranteed to any candidate. "If the only two options in 1996 were to vote Democratic or Republican, the story would seem to be over. But gay, lesbian and bisexual voters have a third option: they can stay home," said D'Emilio.

Evidence from the 1994 elections supports this assertion. In the midterm elections, when gay issues received less attention than in 1992, and when disappointment was still fresh from the Clinton Administration's support of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and its failure to support the Supreme Court legal challenge to the Colorado ballot initiative, the self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual vote shrunk by more than a third. "It still remained a heavily Democratic vote, but there were a lot fewer votes cast," said D'Emilio.

Whether voters stay home in 1996 or rush to the polls depends on several factors, said D'Emilio. Will the Democratic party actively court the gay vote, or simply take it for granted? Will the Republican Party castigate the gay community like it did in 1992, or try to avoid polarizing social issues? Will the extremist Christian Right make gays the target of their rhetoric, and thereby galvanize gays, lesbians and bisexual to come out and vote? Will gay organizations succeed in their plans to coordinate massive voter registration drives, and will they be able to mobilize those voters?

"In other words, the Republican Party can antagonize the gay vote, or try to neutralize it," said D'Emilio. "The Democratic Party can effectively mobilize it, or watch it slip away in inaction. There is a gay, lesbian and bisexual vote. It is growing, it is concentrated, and it is still untapped."

The survey was released today at a Washington D.C. press conference, which also featured a report by Carmen Vasquez, director of public policy, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City, on the "Promote the Vote" gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender national voter registration drive; and Tony Valenzuela and Brenda Schumacher, co-chairs of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender VOICES '96, an ad hoc coalition planning actions at the GOP Convention in San Diego this year.

For a copy of the gay vote report, contact NGLTF at (202)332-6483, ext. 3303 or visit our Publications web page at http://www.ngtlf.org/pub.html.

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The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.