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Social & Policy Issues
When and Why Marriage Became Partisan
Social & Policy Issues

When and Why Marriage Became Partisan

Story Highlights

  • Before 1980, Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to marry
  • In recent decades, Democrats have become much less likely to marry
  • Democrats have seen a large drop in pro-marriage attitudes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Analysis of nearly a century of Gallup measurement of Americans’ marital status shows that after decades of little partisan difference, a gap in the marriage rates of Republicans and Democrats cracked open in the 1980s and has widened in the past quarter century. Although demographic differences between Republicans and Democrats and changes in economic conditions might account for some of this, differences in attitudes about the importance and benefits of marriage -- with Republicans valuing it more than Democrats -- appear to be the much bigger factor. These findings suggest that declining marriage rates can be partly explained by cultural changes, potentially including rising secularization and a shift to individually centered norms. [1]

When Marriage Became Partisan

For 40 years during the middle of the 20th century, Gallup recorded little difference in the marriage rates of middle-aged Republicans and Democrats -- those of the prime marriage ages of 30-50. [2] But a gap emerged in the 1980s as the rate fell rapidly for Democrats but much less so for Republicans. It widened further in the 1990s and 2000s before narrowing a bit since the 2010s as Republicans’ marital rate fell closer to the Democrats’ rate. The latest data suggest the gap may be widening again.

Long term, the marriage rate for Democrats aged 30-50 fell from as high as 90% at points in the 1950s and 1970s to below 60% after 1990 and just under 50% in 2021 and 2024 to date. And the pattern among independents has been similar. Over the same period, Republicans’ marriage rate fell from a peak of 90% in 1965 to less than 80% since 1990 and stands at 67% in 2024 to date.

From 2000 to the present, the Republican marriage rate has averaged 18 percentage points above the Democratic marriage rate. The trend for independents, meanwhile, has been close to that of Democrats.


Data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey tell a similar story, albeit with somewhat smaller sample sizes than are available from Gallup trends. As with the Gallup data, the ANES data show no significant party differences in marriage rates before 1970, with moderate gaps from 1970 to the end of the 20th century and larger gaps so far during the 21st century. In both databases, the falling marriage rate has been roughly twice as large for Democrats and independents as for Republicans.


The partisan marriage gap has expanded largely because Democrats are increasingly forgoing marriage altogether. Among Democrats, the share of 30- to 50-year-olds who report having never married more than tripled between 1979 and 2024, from 8% to 26%. By contrast, the percentage of Republicans who have never married increased much less substantially, from 6% to 12%.

Meanwhile, the partisan gaps in divorce and separation rates are small, and Democrats are only slightly more likely than Republicans to be in domestic partnerships (a two-point difference in 2024).

Independents’ marriage rates have always tracked closely with Democrats’ and fell by the same amount in both Gallup and ANES sources over the pre-1970 to post-1999 period. Thus, to the extent societal forces are at work in the decline of marriage, operating equally on Democrats and independents, Republicans stand out for bucking the trend.

Partisan Marriage Gap Is Only Partly Explained by Demographic Differences Between the Parties

Party identification is strongly correlated with a number of demographic characteristics. But statistical analysis simultaneously taking multiple variables into account shows that a gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ marriage rates persists even after adjusting for age, gender, education, and race or ethnicity. Since 1980, the partisan marriage gap has been 19 points among adults 30 to 50. Adjusting for the factors listed above, the gap shrinks only modestly, to 16 points.

To illustrate, consider that the partisan gap in the marriage rate is just as wide for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree and those who have not. Among both party groups in 2024, there is a 14-point gap in the marriage rate between those with and those without a bachelor’s degree, regardless of party. Among Republicans, 76% of those with a degree versus 62% without a degree are married. For Democrats, the figures are 54% and 40%, respectively.

Democrats tend to have higher levels of college education than Republicans, and education is generally associated with higher rates of marriage. As a result, the gap in marriage rates between Republicans and Democrats actually increases after education is taken into account.

Republicans are much more religious than Democrats, and religious people are more likely than nonreligious people to be married. Still, religiosity only partly explains the marriage gap between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to be married across each category of religiosity defined by those who identify with a religion versus those who don’t, and by those who attend religious services frequently versus those who don’t.

Specifically, adults who identify with a religion are 10 points more likely to be married than those who say they have no religious identity (“nones”), using data since 1980. But even adjusting for this measure of religion in a statistical model, the partisan marriage gap becomes only slightly smaller, going from 16 to 14 points.

Similar results are apparent from an analysis of religious service attendance, based on coding respondents into one of three groups: 1) attend weekly or more often; 2) attend at least monthly but not weekly; 3) seldom or never attend. Adding these variables to the model lowers the partisan gap to 11 points, though it remains highly significant. Results are similar using a measure of the importance of religion in one’s personal life. What this means is that some, but less than half, of the partisan gap in marriage is explained by party differences in religiosity. This suggests values that more specifically pertain to marriage than one’s broad religiosity are at play in explaining differences in marriage rates.


Do Attitudes Toward Marriage Explain Partisan Differences?

The widening partisan gap in marriage rates can be better understood by increased differences between Republicans and Democrats in attitudes toward marriage. This finding is based on an examination of trends by Gallup and other survey organizations that measure attitudes about marriage, implicitly or explicitly.

Previous Gallup work has shown that Americans have become more relaxed in their attitudes about the importance of marriage over the past two decades, and these attitudes differ by political party in ways that are consistent with Republicans giving the most moral weight to marriage, when it comes to things like sex, child rearing and plans for lifelong partnership. Aggregated Gallup data from 2021-2024, for example, show that 81% of Democrats aged 20-50 say that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, compared with 71% of independents and 64% of Republicans aged 20-50. The trends for these items go back only, at most, to 2001, which does not allow insight into whether partisan attitudes about marriage were closer when partisan marriage gaps were smaller. Two additional items have been identified that go further back in time and show that Democratic and Republican views about the value of marriage were indeed closer when marriage rates were closer:

  1. Belief in whether married people are happier
  2. Belief that marriage is an outdated institution

Happily Ever After

People should, in theory, be motivated to marry if they think it will make them happier. A belief that marriage and happiness are related appears to be a reasonable assumption, given evidence to suggest that marriage is associated with wellbeing; married people are more likely than those who are not married to evaluate their personal situation as being “closer to the best possible life,” and this is true for men and women of all racial and ethnic groups.

Yet, many Americans are skeptical of the idea that married people are happier, and this skepticism is most pronounced among Democrats. NORC’s General Social Survey periodically asks Americans whether married people are generally happier than unmarried people. The results by party have varied over time in ways that are consistent with the relative fall in marriage rates. Republicans are about twice as likely as Democrats (46% versus 21%) to agree with the statement in the latest data, from 2012. In 1988, there was only a small gap in attitudes between Democrats and Republicans, and a majority of adults under the age of 50 agreed. The partisan gap expanded from 1988 to 1994, contracted by 2002, and was up to 25 points as of 2012, which is the last year these data were collected.

Meanwhile, in 1988, independents were the least likely to agree that married people are generally happier (only 43%), but they showed more stability in this view than Democrats, so that by 2012, 31% of independents agreed, compared with 21% of Democrats. Thus, while all groups lost faith in the link between marriage and happiness, Democrats saw the largest drop by a considerable margin.


Other contemporary evidence confirms that Republicans are more likely to hold attitudes linking marriage to wellbeing. A 2023 Gallup survey asked parents whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “Marriage improves partnerships by strengthening the commitment to one another.” In response, 67% of Republican parents aged 25 to 50 strongly agreed, compared with 30% of Democratic parents and 45% of independent parents in the same age group (see second chart below).

Declining marriage rates could also reflect changes in beliefs about the relevance of marriage in modern society. Older data measuring this type of attitude come from the World Values Survey, which asked adults whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “Marriage is an outdated institution.” [3]

In 1995, U.S. Democrats aged 25 to 50 were not significantly more likely than Republicans to agree (10% to 7%) with the “marriage is outdated” sentiment. By 2006, there was an eight-point partisan gap on this question, although majorities in both major parties still disagreed with the statement.


Yet, the binary scale (agree/disagree) masks important variation. More recent data from the World Values Survey are not available, but in the 2023 Gallup survey of parents, the same question (“Is marriage an outdated institution?”) was fielded but with a five-point agreement-disagreement scale. Recoding those who strongly agreed or agreed that married people are generally happier as “agree” and everyone who neither agreed nor disagreed, or disagreed to any extent, as “disagree,” produced results similar to those of the 2006 survey. The partisan gap remained elevated, with agreement among Republican parents at 6%, and agreement among Democratic parents at 14%. Yet, this coding ignores important distinctions in the level of disagreement: 76% of Republicans strongly disagreed with the statement, compared with just 29% of Democrats and 44% of independents. A large share of Democratic parents (37%) neither agreed nor disagreed, compared with 10% of Republicans and 27% of independents. These data make it clear that a large majority of Republicans strongly reject antimarriage sentiment, but the majority of Democrats do not.

Further evidence for partisan differences on the importance of marriage comes from a related item on the same 2023 survey of parents. The item asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “I hope my child marries someone, when the time is right.” Among parents aged 25 to 50, 75% of Republican parents strongly agreed, compared with 54% of independent parents and 43% of Democratic parents. A substantial fraction of Democrats and independents neither agree nor disagree (30% and 25%, respectively). Unfortunately, there are no trends for this item, but it confirms sharp attitudinal differences between contemporary Republicans, on the one hand, and Democrats and independents, on the other, when it comes to the value of marriage.


Discussion and Conclusion

Marriage rates among younger generations of Americans have fallen much more among Democrats and independents in recent decades than among Republicans. Demographic differences between the parties, such as by age, education and religiosity, only partly explain the divergence. That leaves changes in attitudes about marriage as the likely greater factor.

In particular, Democrats and independents are now much less likely than Republicans to believe that marriage leads to happiness, whereas the three groups’ views were similar in previous decades. Likewise, Democrats are much less likely than Republicans to reject the idea that marriage is outdated, and this too has changed since the mid-1990s. These trends in attitudes align with other current evidence that Democratic and independent parents see marriage as less valuable to the quality of domestic relationships and are less inclined to want their children to marry when they get older, compared with Republican parents.

An alternative explanation for declining marriage rates, often advanced by economists and sociologists, is that men have become less attractive or marriageable because some combination of trade policies and technological advancements has taken away high-paying jobs, even as women have seen a large growth in their income. Yet, this narrative relies on questionable facts and logic. Male earnings have, in fact, risen since the 1960s, controlling for inflation, and men are still far more likely to work and to earn higher wages than women. [4] Additionally, if economic considerations dictated whether people marry, then marriage rates should be at an all-time high, because both men and women have never stood to gain so much financially by combining incomes, as both groups are earning more than previous generations.

Understanding the decline in marriage is important, given the apparent benefits that marriage confers on individuals and society. A variety of recent research, including Gallup’s, indicates married adults are more likely than others to be thriving in wellbeing. [5] Likewise, research shows that, on average, families tend to be more financially secure, and children tend to have better outcomes when they are raised in a married household. [6]

The long-term fall in marriage rates among all Americans, most pronounced among Democrats and independents, raises the question of why this has happened. The data reviewed in this article suggest that Democrats’ and independents’ lower marriage rates relative to Republicans’ largely reflect attitudinal differences toward marriage. Future research will help uncover what is behind these attitudinal differences.

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[1] Welzel, Christian. Freedom rising. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[2] Party identity is coded from the item: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?”

[3] To measure partisanship, the survey asked respondents which party candidate they would vote for, so independents were not available for comparable analysis.

[4] See Winship, Scott. "Bringing Home the Bacon: Have Trends in Men’s Pay Weakened the Traditional Family?" American Enterprise Institute, 2022; Economic Innovation Group, "The American Worker: Toward a New Consensus,"

[5] Rothwell, Jonathan. “Married Americans Thriving at Higher Rates Than Unmarried Adults,” Gallup, March 22, 2024.; Wilcox, Brad. Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. HarperCollins, 2024.

[6] Kearney, Melissa S. The two-parent privilege: How the decline in marriage has increased inequality and lowered social mobility, and what we can do about it. Swift Press, 2023.

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