Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Polls show mixed support for same-sex marriage


New York University Professor Patrick Egan said recent polls on same-sex marriage showed a slow gain of support. Photo: Bob Roehr
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For the first time, two national polls show more support than opposition to same-sex marriage. Some state polls are showing similar results. But a third national poll suggests the balance in public opinion has not tipped profoundly enough that anyone can yet declare victory in the battle.

First, a CBS News-New York Times poll, released April 27, showed 42 percent surveyed believe gay couples should be allowed to legally marry, 25 percent supported civil unions, and only 28 percent said there should be no recognition at all. CBS-Times had been polling on that issue since March 2004, including in March of this year, but only in April of this year did support for same-sex marriage top the opposition to any recognition.

Then, an ABC News-Washington Post poll, released April 30, showed 49 percent surveyed believe same-sex marriages should be legal, and 46 percent said "illegal." ABC-Post had been polling on the issue since September 2003 and, again, this was the first time support outweighed opposition.

Finally, a poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, also released April 30, found that 33 percent of its respondents supported legal marriage for same-sex couples, 26 percent supported only civil unions, and 34 percent said gay couples "should not be allowed to obtain legal recognition of their relationship." Quinnipiac had asked the question only once before – in July 2008 – and its comparison seemed to suggest some people who supported civil unions might now be trending toward opposition to any recognition.

Polls in various states have generally mirrored the national results. A Quinnipiac poll in New Jersey last month found 49 percent would support a law to allow same-sex couples to marry, 43 opposed, 8 percent didn't answer. A Field Poll in California in March found 48 percent would support repealing Proposition 8, which amended the constitution to ban same-sex marriage, while 47 percent would keep it. A Pan Atlantic poll in Maine last month showed 39 supported marriage equality, 35 percent supported only civil unions, and 23 opposed any recognition. Compared to a similar poll in March 2004, support for same-sex marriage had increased nine points, while opposition to any recognition dropped nine points.

Trending toward support

The latest national polls come on the heels of recent marriage victories in Iowa and Vermont, and they come as the nation nears the five-year anniversary of the first licensing of same-sex marriages in the United States.

It is a mark that began on May 17, 2004, in Massachusetts but really picked up momentum last May when the California Supreme Court made it possible – at least for five months – for gay couples to obtain marriage licenses there, too. Then followed Connecticut late last year, and Iowa just last month. And it was last month that the Vermont Legislature approved a bill that will enable gay couples to begin obtaining marriage licenses there in September. On Wednesday, Maine became the fifth state to recognize same-sex marriages after Governor John Baldacci signed legislation. (Critical votes in New Hampshire are pending.)

Most of the polling in earnest on same-sex marriage began in 2003. CBS-Times took its first pulse on the issue in March, followed by ABC-Post in September. Those polls were taken before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its landmark decision in November 2003 saying the state constitution requires gay couples be able to obtain marriage licenses the same as straight couples.

The CBS-Times poll asked, "Which comes closest to your view: Gay couples should be allowed to legally marry or gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry or there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship?" As recently as March, opponents of any recognition had outnumbered supporters of same-sex marriage – 35 percent to 33 percent. But in April, support for marriage shot up from 33 percent to 42 percent, and opposition to any recognition dropped from 35 percent to 28 percent. There was little change in support for civil unions – 27 percent in March, 25 percent in April. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 points. The CBS-Times poll surveyed 973 adults nationwide between April 22-26 and asked about gay marriage as question number 50 among 112 on a wide range of political issues.

The ABC-Post poll's question was worded much differently: "Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian/homosexual couples to get married?" The wording seems to imply there has been some contemplation of making it a crime for gay couples to get married. Instead, the public discourse has been generally along the lines of whether to allow gay couples to obtain marriage licenses. And the ABC-Post report has interpreted people's responses as indicating the latter. It also gave respondents an opportunity to indicate how strongly they held their views. Back in 2003, the ABC-Post poll found that 37 percent of their respondents believed gay marriages should be "legal," and 55 percent believed they should be "illegal;" with 7 percent giving no response. The numbers grew against same-sex marriage to a high of 62 percent in August 2004 – just three months after gay couples in Massachusetts started getting married. But last month, 49 percent said they believe gay marriages should be "legal," and 46 percent believe they should be "illegal;" 5 percent had no response. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

As the ABC-Post report explained, "for the first time in ABC-Post polls [on gay marriage,] supporters have outnumbered opponents." The "sharp shift," said the pollsters, "has occurred across ideological groups." Even conservatives have gone from 10 percent support in 2004 to 30 percent support now. The ABC-Post poll surveyed 1,072 adults nationwide between April 21-24 and asked about same-sex marriage as questions number 41 and 42 of 50 on a wide range of political issues.

Quinnipiac University Polling Institute conducted the third national poll, surveying 2,041 registered voters between April 21-27 and its results had a margin of error of 2.2 points, plus or minus. Quinnipiac asked eight questions about same-sex marriage, including: "Do you think same-sex couples should be allowed legally to marry, should be allowed legally to form civil unions but not marry, or should not be allowed to obtain legal recognition of their relationships?" Here, 33 percent chose marriage, 26 percent said civil unions, and 34 percent said gay couples "should not be allowed to obtain legal recognition of their relationship." Quinnipiac framed the question another way, too: "Would you support or oppose a law in your state that would allow same-sex couples to get married?" Support for a law went up, as did opposition. While 38 percent would support such a law, 55 percent would oppose, and 7 percent did not answer.

One expert noted that the polls show movement toward marriage equality.

"There has been movement in our direction over the long term," said Patrick Egan, a polling expert and professor of politics at New York University. "But I don't read these polls as being short-term movement in response to Iowa or Vermont."

Nine-point jumps over one month, like that shown in the CBS-Times poll, he said, are "very, very rare" and usually in response to such "huge events" as 9/11. What they do confirm, he said, "is a slow but steady upward trend – gaining about 1 percent per year" in support for same-sex marriage.

What's the question?

It would seem, then, that exactly how a question is worded would have an impact on the results – something pollsters and poll watchers have known for a very long time. Still, even though these three polls asked the questions differently, there was some consistency in their trends.

Two of the three national polls showed significantly more support for some form of legal recognition even during the height of opposition. In the CBS-Times poll, the height of opposition to any recognition came in November 2004 – with 44 percent opposed and 53 percent agreeable to some form of recognition. For ABC-Post , it came in March 2004 – with 62 percent opposed and 32 percent supportive.

But the Quinnipiac poll suggested the opposition to legal recognition might be growing. It provided data comparing its poll results in July 2008 with its results in April 2009. In July 2008, 29 percent of respondents opposed any recognition, where in April 2009, 34 percent opposed any recognition. Most of that change came from respondents who were supporting civil unions in 2008. Civil union support dropped from 33 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2009; but support for marriage remained essentially even – 32 percent in 2008, 33 percent in 2009 – and the number not answering the question was 6 percent each year.

Both the ABC-Post and the Quinnipiac polls asked a question to determine whether respondents think their home states should recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states. The ABC-Post poll results suggested yes (53 percent); Quinnipiac suggested no (50 percent).

Again, the questions were worded very differently. ABC-Post asked, "If a gay or lesbian couple gets legally married in another state, do you think that marriage should or should not be recognized as legal in your state?" Quinnipiac asked: "Under current federal law states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Do you think this law should remain in existence or not?"

Interestingly, when Quinnipiac asked about the same federal law in a different way – a way that referred to people, not laws – the results reversed and nearly mirrored the ABC-Post results.

"Under current federal law spouses in same-sex marriages are denied eligibility for federal benefits. Do you think this law should remain in existence or not?" asked Quinnipiac. Asked this way, 54 percent were opposed to that federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, and 39 percent supported it, with 7 percent not responding.

Under the Quinnipiac survey, 58 percent disagreed with the statement that "same-sex marriage is a threat to traditional marriage," but 51 percent said they do not believe it is discrimination to deny same-sex couples the right to a marriage license. Asked, "Who do you think should decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to get married, your state legislature or your state courts?" 43 percent chose the legislature, 25 percent the courts, 16 percent said neither, 5 percent said both, and 12 percent had no answer.

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