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Elite Mobilization: A Theory Explaining Opposition to Gay Rights


Media and scholastic accounts describe a strong backlash against attempts to advance gay rights. Academic research, however, increasingly raises questions about the sharply negative and enduring opinion change that characterizes backlash among the mass public. How can we reconcile the widespread backlash described by the media with the growing body of academic research that finds no evidence of the opinion change thought to be its hallmark trait? We argue that rather than widespread opinion change, what appears to be backlash against gay rights is more consistent with elite-led mobilization—a reaction by elites seeking to prevent gays and lesbians from achieving full incorporation in the polity. We present evidence from what is widely considered to be a classic case of anti-gay backlash, the 2010 Iowa Judicial Retention Election. Analysis of campaign contribution data in Iowa versus other states between 2010 and 2014, and voter roll-off data exploiting a unique feature of the 2010 retention election supports this argument. The results simultaneously explain how reports of backlash might occur despite increased support for gay rights, and an academic literature that finds no evidence of backlash.

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