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Republicans’ fixation on trans issues could backfire, pollsters say

Analysts say both parties must walk a fine line on the issue to win voters

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., put up this sign after Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., put up a pro transgender rights flag across the hallway in 2020.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., put up this sign after Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., put up a pro transgender rights flag across the hallway in 2020. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Republican preoccupation with transgender issues, which has resulted in hundreds of bills at the state and federal levels, may excite the party’s evangelical base. But analysts say all that enthusiasm for restricting the rights and health care of about 0.6 percent of Americans risks putting off swing voters.

Pollsters and strategists from both parties largely agree: Focusing on transgender issues could help Republicans in the general election if independent voters see the GOP as defending commonsense school policies from “woke” gender ideology run amok. Or it could end up hurting Republicans if voters think they’re just picking on a small, misunderstood set of individuals simply trying to live their lives.

“If you’re talking about suburban parents who are concerned about what’s going on in their public schools, this is an area where I think that Republicans have a big opportunity,” said Dan Judy, a Republican pollster at North Star Opinion Research. “The tone of how this is handled is extremely important because the vast majority of people, regardless of their views on trans issues, don’t want to treat people, especially children, cruelly.”

“It’s clear that they think it’s a great idea,” said Ben Lazarus, a Democratic pollster at TargetSmart. “They feel like it can help them win.”

But Lazarus thinks it’ll ultimately bite Republicans in general elections — unless “they somehow miraculously make the debate all about parents and we really don’t push back in a smart way.”

Republican lawmakers across the nation have introduced hundreds of bills targeting transgender individuals this year. At least 10 states have banned gender-affirming care for minors, and another 21 have introduced bills, even as multiple studies have found access to gender-affirming care reduces the risk of depression and suicide for trans children, who are more likely than not to have considered suicide. In at least five states, the GOP’s proposed gender-affirming care bans would also cover adults.

Nineteen states have also banned transgender students from participating in school sports matching their gender identity. Republican legislators in at least 16 states have offered bills that would restrict or ban drag performances, many of which are written broadly enough to restrict nearly all public cross-dressing.

Republicans in Congress have followed suit with bills that would ban gender-affirming care for minors, prohibit schools from teaching students about gender identity without prior parental consent, and place limits on transgender individuals serving in the military. The House Education Committee recently held a hearing on a bill that would amend Title IX to require student-athletes to compete based on their gender at birth. If it passed, the bill would ban an estimated 32 openly transgender NCAA athletes out of 480,000 total from playing on their preferred teams.

Republicans see many of these proposals as a natural backlash to rapidly changing societal norms around transgender issues that have, in some cases, gone from merely seeking acceptance to outright coaxing kids to transition. Voters will end up punishing the side that seems more extreme on the issue, said Charles Maron, president of the Log Cabin Republicans. He thinks that has been the left — at least, so far.

“My prescription to the GOP would be: Tread very lightly on these issues, particularly as it deals with outreach to women,” Maron said. “Women … don’t want to see people in society being picked on or marginalized, but, at the same time, if you come after their kids, they’re going to turn into mama bears.”

Maron thinks there’s room for “commonsense” policies, arguing measures that inform and empower parents about what’s going on at school make sense — such as the “parental rights” bill that passed the House last week on a party-line vote — while laws that would ban gender-affirming care or regulate drag queens like strippers do not.

“What we’re trying to counsel Republicans is: Do not take this resurgence of parental rights and weaponize it into something that the voters truly can’t get their head around,” he said. “If you overreach, you will do so at your own peril.”

What polls show

New polling from Data for Progress suggests that voters are starting to see the GOP’s efforts as just that. When asked about the more than 400 pieces of legislation working their way through statehouses, “aimed at limiting the rights of transgender and gay people in America,” 64 percent of respondents, including 55 percent of Republicans, sided with the statement “This is too much legislation. Politicians are playing political theater and using these bills as a wedge issue,” compared with 25 percent who agreed with the statement “This is the right amount of legislation. Politicians are dealing with a real danger that needs to be addressed.”

That figure rose to 78 percent among respondents who know a transgender person.

“This polling finds that voters across all political parties see the Republican attempt to flood state legislatures with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation as political theater,” said Erin Thomas, a pollster at Data for Progress. “It also shows that the ideas espoused by today’s loudest anti-trans advocates — that trans people threaten children and that our identities are a ‘woke’ invention — don’t resonate with the average voter.”

Republican strategists largely view transgender topics as another front on their war on wokeism, which has animated the party’s base in recent years. But unlike most culture war topics, a large number of voters, including independents, haven’t made up their minds about transgender issues.

“There’s a good number of people who just admit that they don’t know. … It’s a good fifth of the electorate,” said Jane Rayburn, a Democratic pollster with EMC Research.

An earlier Data for Progress poll from 2022 found some support for Republican legislation that focused on trans children. “Only 38% of likely voters say that laws preventing transgender children from participating in sports and pursuing medical transition are discriminatory, compared to 48% who think these laws are necessary to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing,” the pollsters found. “While a majority of Democrats and young voters view these laws as discriminatory, only 38% of Independents and 17% of Republicans share this view.”

“Most individuals don’t know much about trans people or queer culture, and anti-trans activists exploit this to promote discriminatory legislation,” Thomas said. “The Democratic party can play a vital role in raising awareness about queer and trans issues by publicly condemning this legislation.”

Other recent polls have suggested that 64 percent of voters support extending laws that would prohibit bosses or landlords from discriminating against transgender applicants, but 61 percent dislike using gender-neutral pronouns. A 2022 Pew survey found a plurality of Americans (38 percent) thought society had gone too far in accepting transgender people, while most believed society should do more (36 percent) or had done about enough (23 percent).

Voters’ uncertainty around the topic is why Democrats need to carefully frame their opposition to the GOP proposals as attacks on individuals, rather than an opportunity to enlighten an ignorant population, Rayburn said. As voters begin to see “that it’s taking away freedoms, it’s taking away rights, it’s taking away privacy, it’s taking away health care, it’s going to become a problematic issue,” Rayburn said. 

“There is a lot of confusion around gender identity, what it means to be a trans person, why do we have to put people into certain gender identity categories, are we being too ‘woke’” she said. “As Democrats, we try to lean in to try to explain all these things to people, and that’s where we lose the thread.”

Lazarus agreed that Democrats will need to avoid GOP attempts to paint them as anti-parent as Republicans push trans legislation focused on schools.

“What I recommend to any of my Democratic clients is that we care about and want and welcome parental involvement,” he said.

Republicans credited parental ire over strict COVID-19 lockdowns for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win in 2021 and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ blowout reelection in 2022, arguing a similar backlash against so-called woke policies like gender-neutral locker rooms or trans girls playing women’s sports will help them in upcoming races. “That’s just an obviously bad idea to most people, regardless of how they feel about transgender people,” Judy said.

The Democratic pollsters disagreed, pointing to GOP culture warriors getting trounced in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona in 2022.  

“Perhaps they play in primaries, but ultimately, as we saw in 2022, that extremism — taking away rights, prohibiting people from accessing medical care — these things were not popular,” Rayburn said. “They cost Republicans the election, and I think they’ll cost the Republicans the election again.”

Organized discontent

Rayburn sees the school bathroom bills and drag queen dragnets as just the latest examples of conservative political activists manufacturing controversy to foment their base by targeting “a vulnerable, marginalized community.” 

“This is a tactic that is as old as time,” she said.

Democrats have long argued that Republican operatives regularly hunt down small, emotional disputes to amplify for divisive, but ultimately decisive, political gain — a claim that they have occasionally confirmed. “We organize discontent” is how one of the leaders of the “New Right” that grew out of the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, Howard Phillips, put it. 

For decades, conservatives have been able to mine race and gender for the raw ore to cast into wedge issues. But those veins have run dry as the nation has grown more diverse and accepting, Lazarus argued. “This is another step in a culture war that centers religion and centers race and centers gender in a way that is moving away from Republicans, not towards them,” he said.

The GOP largely lost their electoral advantage on culture war issues after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, argued Danielle Deiseroth, Data for Progress’ interim executive director.

“Republicans tried running on cultural war issues in November in the midterms, not just on anti-trans, anti LGBTQ issues but also on anti-abortion issues,” said Deiseroth. “We saw them fail pretty spectacularly at running on those culture war issues.”

A competitive presidential primary season could also push the GOP to planks too extreme for general election voters. “It’s going to be a more open debate on the Republican side,” Judy said. “Unfortunately, in primaries on both sides, those debates tend to get pushed further and further to the extremes.”

The front-runners are already trying to outdo one another. Former President Donald Trump promised to punish doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors, comparing the practice — which is endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association — to “child sexual mutilation.” Trump’s stance on LGBT issues reportedly came in response to seeing how much attention his presumptive challenger, DeSantis, has garnered while waging culture wars in Florida. 

And while Republicans will undoubtedly shift their messaging and focus away from the base and toward swing voters after primaries, they’ll be tied to the transgender laws enacted in red states, limiting their ability to pivot.

President Joe Biden is expected to run for reelection with no serious primary contenders, allowing him to maintain his simple messaging on trans issues, which Deiseroth said other Democrats should emulate.

“Democrats need to just talk about this issue like normal people. These attacks are cruel for a very small group of people who deserve to have the freedom to live their lives,” she said. “This giant ‘woke’ monster is really just a Scooby Doo monster — like, you can take the mask off pretty easily.”

Going too far?

Judy warned that a lot of Republicans were already going too far in some cases. “Like so many issues in our country, the most extreme voices are dominating the conversation when there is a pretty reasonable middle that can come to a consensus on a lot of these things,” he said.

But, he argued, that wouldn’t necessarily blow back against the GOP, depending on their implementation and enforcement. “Even if there’s overreach on the conservative side [but it] doesn’t really change the status quo, I don’t know if they will suffer bigger consequences,” Judy said.

Despite all the attention from lawmakers and media, transgender issues aren’t at the forefront of many voters’ minds, strategists from both parties noted. “I’ve done national polls, statewide polls, swing state polls, you name it, I’ve done it,” Rayburn said. “I am not seeing these issues come up in an open-ended, ‘What is the most important issue you want your politicians to do something about?’” 

The GOP’s preoccupation with gender comes at the expense of focusing on the matters voters really care about, the liberal strategist said. 

In the wake of the latest school shooting, Democratic lawmakers and activists highlighted the contrast in focus between the two parties, flooding social media with comments similar to this tweet from Rep. Jimmy Gomez: “Republicans want to ban books, drag shows, Black history, TikTok — all in the name of ‘protecting children.’ But they won’t ban assault weapons or even pass legislation to require universal background checks, when gun violence is the #1 killer of children.”

Conservatives also politicized the tragedy in Nashville, arguing that it demonstrates a pattern of trans mass shootings, even as statistics show that 98 percent of mass shooters are men.  

Former Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed that her fellow Republicans’ fixation on trans issues was misguided. As the mother of a trans man, Ros-Lehtinen has become one of the few conservative voices pushing for more inclusion and acceptance of families like hers.

“There are so many crucial challenges that hard-working American families are facing every day but instead of coming up with viable solutions to real problems, such as the high cost of food and the unaffordability of housing, many legislators, especially at the state level, are obsessing over how they can make the lives of endangered youth even more perilous,” she wrote in an email. “Intolerance is not a good look on anyone. I remain optimistic that voters will see through this charade and will encourage their elected officials to solve the real problems of America instead of masquerading as Moral Police Officers.”