National Journal regularly publishes surveys on issues it calls “Insider Surveys.” This month's survey is on the issue of “gay marriage” (the term they use, many people prefer the term marriage equality).

The results show an absolutely astonishing shift in attitudes on the issue, for both the Democratic and Republican party “insiders” surveyed. It is 207 people, and to be clear it is not a scientific survey that is in any way representative of the population at large. To the contrary, it is heavily weighted by politicos. They explain the respondents:

The National Journal Political Insiders Poll is a regular survey of political operatives, strategists, campaign consultants and lobbyists in both parties.

In some ways this may be more indicative of the future than mere popular polling. To earn the title of being deemed an “insider” by the National Journal it is probably fair to say one must be an opinion leader and have some sway in not insignificant spheres of power and/or thought. The survey contrasts changes in responses between April 2009, the last time they asked, and the most recent one, July 2011. This is a mere 27 months.

Of course, it is also a 27 month period that saw Federal Court repudiations of Prop 8, several of the Defense Marriage Act, a 180-degree turnaround in the Justice Department's stance on the issue, legislative vote to allow repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” a Federal Court strike down of DADT, and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo's resounding victory on this issue in New York (made possible by Republicans acquiescing to give it to him).

Also, national polling turned a corner and now shows opponents are indisputably in the minority, and the polling is only going one way.

The changes from the “Insiders” are remarkable, for not only the Democratic responses (102 people) but also for the Republicans (105). The respondents to the survery are actually named at the source, which include some marquee names (Dana Perino, Janet Napolitano, Alex Castellanos, Peter Daou, Mike Murphy, Harold Ickes) but many more that are less familiar. Their specific responses are not provided, and the quotes are anonymous.

First, a look at the respondents who identify themselves as Democrats:

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Look at that swing: a 25 point uptick in Democrats expressing their support, in just 27 months. From a super-majority to realistically about as close to unanimity as one is likely to see on any issue in politics.

The GOP has not swung significantly toward support, but respondents do seem to be indicating a desire to retreat—rather than double down—on the fight:

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Republicans are showing a 20 point shift in the hardline opposition. Where'd they go? Mostly not to support (which did uptick 6%), but rather, to “Avoid the issue.” One Republican who is himself described as opposed to “gay marriage” is quoting as saying,

“State the position and move on. Do not make it the focal point.”

“Avoid the issue?” “Do not make it a focal point?

WTF?!?!

But? But? Hasn't the right wing been telling us gay marriage will lead to “anarchy,” “gulags“, “the tyranny of the majority“, “the end of the world,” and as Catholic leaders have warned, will make the United States exactly like “China and North Korea?”

How can they abandon a fight with consequences that dire?

Perhaps it's that a look at the cross-tabs of the polls shows that 15+ years into the debate, most swing voters and independents have rejected the most deranged, hysterical, hyperbole coming out of the far right on the subject. In fact, more and more and more they are siding with those radical, activist homosexuals, as multiple majority opinion polls are showing.

In fact, even the craziest of the crazy can read the writing on the wall. Jim Daly, president of the far-right social issues group Focus on the Family discussed marriage equality in May saying:

“We're losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age — demographers would say probably not. We've probably lost that. I don't want to be extremist here, but I think we need to start calculating where we are in the culture.”

When a group who's made their entire business model out of manufacturing homophobia starts talking about coming up with a Plan B, you know a sea change has occurred.

All this points to a bit of a puzzle I myself have been trying to solve. The elaborate rhetorical gymnastics the administration is performing of late seem to confirm that not actively engaging this issue is the preferred plan of attack from the Democratic Party leader heading into 2012 election season.

This reflects a conventional wisdom often expressed that “Democrats don't want elections to be all about the gays, for heavens sake!” Everyone knows gay issues are electoral kryptonite, right?

But how to square the conventional wisdom with what's actually going on?

Because there seems to be some significant internal dissent in the Democratic Party itself about how front and center to be on this issue as election time rolls around. Many influential Democrats in the Senate seem OK with heading straight into 2012 armed with a high-profile
push for repeal the Defense of Marriage Act
as a front burner cause. They are clearly using the power of their offices to make this issue a focal point, enthusiastically talking to the press..

Senator Leahy of Vermont (right) didn't get the “duck the gay marriage” memo either, apparently. Thursday his office announced the Senate will be holding DOMA hearings to put the issue of marriage equality front and center of the American public. Suffice it to say the progressive and LGBT media will be happy to clip the video and transcripts and distribute the content far and wide. Undoubtedly, so will the far right. After Prop 8 verdict, the Justice Department's remarkable shift on DOMA, and New York's marriage equality victory, I think we can expect to see significant popular interest in this story.

The clue to what is going on is apparently some Democrats see an opportunity here, from the Journal:

Democrats also felt that support for gay marriage would solidify the party's grip on younger voters. “It's this generation's civil rights movement,” exclaimed one Democratic Insider. “It's a huge demographic opportunity for Democrats because almost every voter under 30 supports it,” said another.”

This is not conjecture or wishful thinking but can be observed in the crosstabs of every credible poll taken on the issue. This is also the reason so many, like the Vice President, have concluded marriage equality is “inevitable.” Where Democrats see gain, the Republicans see their own vulnerability:

“Huge issue with young voters we need,” asserted one GOP Insider who said the party should support gay marriage. “Only idiots fight demography.”

It may take a while for these insiders in the GOP to influence their party. The Republicans continue to mount quixotic grandstanding stunts on the issue. They are doing what the GOP does best, tossing red meat to the base. GOP Presidential candidates too have been gleefully feeding the Religious Right base they need to snag the nomination. But, none of these politicians are likely impressing anyone who wouldn't be already inclined to vote Republican, not “socialist!”

Increasingly Democrats are really rising, not shying from this fight. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo found championing the issue of marriage equality was a pretty effective way to prompt the press to pair the number “2016″ with his name. Many suspect that was his aim all along. Mission accomplished.

In engaging this fight, Democrats, too, are serving up a slice of red meat to their own progressive base. But, unlike the Republicans, exploiting their base's instincts for equality and justice offers little risk of alienating the middle and voters who might otherwise lean left. This is a trend that shows no danger of reversing in any of our lifetimes.

It's clear this issue is fast heading for its day of reckoning. It's also clear which party is fast scrambling to be on the right side of history, and which party has found they've painted themselves into a corner.