Romney Brand Is Tainted by Gay Aide's Resignation

Most Brands Can't Afford to Alienate the Huge, Loyal Gay Market. Can Republicans?

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The resignation of Richard Grenell as foreign-policy spokesman for the Romney campaign and the resulting imbroglio make one wonder if there is any place for gays in the Republican party. There may not be, at least for gays who advocate same-sex marriage, as did Grenell. For Republicans, this may be more than a matter of avoiding some verbal abuse from the far right. Can their brand afford to alienate gay supporters who could help the party make inroads into the mostly Democratic gay vote, or at least allow the gay community to feel that its voice could get a fair hearing in a Romney administration?

Said Grenell, "While I welcomed the challenge to confront President Obama's foreign policy failures ... my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign."

The inside scoop, according to Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast, is that Grenell was part of a team organizing a conference call to respond to Vice President Biden's recent foreign-policy talk, aka the "big stick" speech. Yet Grenell was not introduced and never spoke a word. Sullivan says the foreign-policy spokesman was "muzzled" and told by those "high up" in the Romney campaign to be quiet. So he quit.

Since his appointment, just two weeks before, Grenell had been subject to a barrage of attacks. National Review's Matthew Franck questioned his fitness for public office, writing: "Grenell has made a particular crusade of the marriage issue, with a kind of unhinged devotion that suggests a man with questionable judgment." On CNN, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said that the "homosexual agenda" is "the single greatest threat to religious liberty ... in American today." He accused Grenell of behavior "offensive to God" and called his resignation "a huge win."

For gay Republicans, and even gay independents, the campaign's inertia was more than a lost opportunity to show support for a gay man who was clearly qualified for the job -- he had been George W. Bush's spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and he is an ardent neoconservative. It sent a message that Romney doesn't have the stuff to stand up to the fanatical wing of his party. And it seems to prove that any gay person who favors equal marriage rights for gays (what gay person doesn't?) is not wanted by the GOP. At least not at a high level in a position of visibility.

Three days after Grenell's resignation, Romney and his top adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, went into damage-control mode. Said Romney, "We select people not based on their ethnicity or their gender" -- interesting choice of words when talking about a gay man -- "but upon their capability. He was a capable individual, and we're sorry to have him go." Fehrnstrom called out the "voices of intolerance" that had opposed Grenell's selection, calling their condemnation of him "unfortunate." But the damage had been done.

In the meantime, the Obama campaign is taking full advantage. Sort of. On Sunday, Vice President Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage. Yet he backtracked a bit, noting that Obama ultimately "sets the policy." On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that he unequivocally supports gay marriage, and the campaign's chief adviser, David Axelrod, commented that there is a "very clear distinction" between the president and Mitt Romney on the issue of same-sex marriage. Yet much to the chagrin (or maybe rage) of the LGBT community, the president has yet to declare that he supports gay marriage.

According to Packaged Facts, LGBT consumers number about 16 million with $800 billion in buying power. And LGBT consumers are fiercely loyal to companies that support them. Packaged Facts has demonstrated that 60% of gays and lesbians agree that when choosing a product or service, all things being equal, they select the brand that is more gay-friendly. Conversely, 70% will turn their backs on companies that are perceived as harmful to the LGBT community.

While the LGBT community typically votes Democratic, Romney could have used the opportunity to send his own signal that at the very least his administration would be an inclusive one. Brands cannot afford to alienate gay consumers. Can the GOP?

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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