Those radical gay-loving Republicans:

This morning's New York Times has the fascinating results of a poll of the views of Republican National Convention delegates on a variety of issues. The poll reveals that 49% of the GOP delegates support either gay marriage (6%) or civil unions (43%). Only 46% of the delegates believe there should be no legal recognition whatsoever of same-sex couples. (The main article, which does not discuss this particular result from the poll, is available here.)

Several things are noteworthy about this. First, support for civil unions, an idea that just ten years ago would have been thought radical by most people — and certainly by Republicans — is quickly becoming the default position across the political spectrum, not just on the left.

Second, party convention delegates are ideologically more extreme versions of party voters. But in this case, Republican delegates are actually more willing by a margin of 10% to support legal recognition of gay unions (49%) than are Republican voters overall (39% — 11% for gay marriage and 28% for civil unions). This may be partly due to the fact that the convention is dominated this year by McCain delegates, who are likely more moderate and libertarian on many social issues than delegates at past conventions. But it's not as if these delegates are social-issues squishes. Fully 81% of them believe abortion should not be permitted at all (43%) or should be more stricly regulated (38%). Even as they are softening their views on gay families they are maintaining their strongly conservative stands on other issues.

Third, unlike their views on some other issues (like abortion and approval of President Bush), Republican delegates are closer to the middle of the American electorate on same-sex relationships than were Democratic delegates, 90% of whom supported marriage (55%) or civil unions (35%). Among all voters, 58% now support either gay marriage (34%) or civil unions (24%), a difference of just 9% from what the GOP delegates believe.

It's still the case, of course, that Democratic voters and delegates are far more likely than Republican voters and delegates to support legal recognition of gay families. The latest draft of the official platform of the national GOP contains no position — either for or against — civil unions, which is noteworthy all by itself and may signal that party leaders understand the changed dynamic on this issue even among Republicans. The platform does reiterate the party's opposition to same-sex marriage and support for a federal marriage amendment (which McCain himself opposes). But I consider this poll of party activists quite surprising, and for a supporter of same-sex marriage, quite encouraging.