Marriage for Gay Couples: A Snapshot of Public Opinion Research
May 11th, 2012
Given the President’s announcement of his support for marriage this week, folks are understandably searching for data on how his position will play with voters in the middle. Our four years of in-depth research into that question provides crucial insights—here’s a quick look at some key numbers from our July 2011 poll.
1. A strong majority of Americans say they will accept marriage for gay couples.
When asked how they would feel if gay couples could marry, 32% said they would be glad, 23% said they would not like it but it would be acceptable to them, and 37% said it would not be acceptable to them (another 9% said they didn’t know). So approximately a third of the country will likely be energized by President Obama’s announcement, and another third will accept it. Only about a third will find it unacceptable—and our guess is that likely very few (if any) of those folks were planning to vote for President Obama before his interview.
2. The “rights” argument may fall flat with the middle, but “commitment” can woo them.
Only a bare majority agreed that “marriage is a basic human right that should not be denied to gay people” (52%) and only slightly more thought that “not allowing gay people to marry is discrimination.” But 60% of respondents in our poll agreed that allowing gay couples to marry would “help committed couples take care of each other and their families.” That included 63% of Independents and 78% of those who rated themselves 5s on a 1-10 comfort scale with marriage. And 61% of all respondents thought the following statement described the issue of marriage for gay couples very well or pretty well: “I believe gay couples want to marry for similar reasons as anyone—to make a public promise of love and commitment.”
A solid 61% described this statement as convincing, including 37% who said it was very convincing:
Some people say that gay and lesbian couples who are truly committed to each other want similar things as the rest of us—to build a life together based on love and commitment, staying together through thick and thin. The Golden Rule is one of the most important values we teach our children—to treat others as we want to be treated. So if a couple is willing to stand up in front of family and friends and make a lifetime promise to each other, it’s not for us to judge, or to deny them that opportunity.
Those who thought that statement was convincing included 64% of Independents, 79% of those who rated themselves a 5 on the comfort scale, and 80% of those who said marriage would be acceptable but they wouldn’t like it (the grudging acceptors).
3. Describing your journey on the issue connects with the middle.
Telling the story of how your views have changed—as the President did this week—resonates deeply with others who feel their views have evolved, or are evolving. The following message incorporates the commitment framework, but the distinction here is that the supporter was once a skeptic:
My name is Bill Stevens. I was brought up thinking that marriage was between a man and a woman. I came to realize that gays and lesbians are born that way. After all, who would choose that harder path? I also know the value of my marriage and the vows and one-of-a-kind promises we made. So I understand why gay couples want to get married—because it is such a unique and important commitment.
Sixty percent of all respondents found this convincing, and further analysis shows that agreement with this message drove support for marriage throughout the survey. Those who found it convincing included 77% of those who were 5s on the comfort scale.
4. Providing religious liberty assurances helps to answer the middle’s concerns.
For much of the middle, faith is important, but it is not the only internal compass in their lives. When asked whether allowing gay couples to marry concerns them because of their religious beliefs, many in the middle were torn. But even among those in the middle who were concerned about religion, overwhelming majorities said “It is not for me to judge.” Sixty-four percent of Independents agreed, as did 76% of the 5s on the marriage comfort scale.
Reiterating that religious marriage will be protected reassures these groups. When religious liberty protections are explicitly incorporated into marriage advocates’ messages, support for marriage spikes—one study by Public Religion Research showed support jumping 14 points in a single poll. If gay couples can show they are as committed to protecting religious liberty as they are to making a lifetime promise to each other in marriage, many in the middle with religious concerns can be swayed.
5. Americans in the middle are movable on marriage—especially using a commitment framework.
After hearing the commitment message during the course of our poll, respondents moved in favor of support for marriage. In fact, 15% of those who had put their comfort level at a 5 after hearing opponents’ attacks moved into the 6 through 8 category by the end of the survey. And nearly 1 in 10 of those who were soft supporters (6 through 8) moved to solid 9s or 10s by the end of the poll.
Other Key Points from Publicly Available Research
1. Opposition to marriage doesn’t translate to punishing candidates who support it.
Just because someone votes against marriage doesn’t mean they would punish a candidate at the ballot box who supports marriage. In fact, our recent polling shows that only a small slice on each ideological pole say a candidate’s position on this issue would affect their vote: 21% say marriage support would make them more likely to vote for a candidate, 34% say less likely, and 45% say it would make no difference. And according to a 2009 study by Freedom to Marry, not one single politician lost a race from 2005-2009 due to his or her support for marriage for gay couples—a time when opposition to marriage was much higher and more intense. The latest Wall Street Journal poll provides more evidence for why that’s the case: 25% of Americans say a candidate’s support for marriage would make them more likely to vote for that candidate, 20% say less, and a full 54% say it would make no difference.
2. Voters in the center of the electorate support marriage.
Polls consistently show that key groups in the center favor marriage for gay couples. The latest Gallup numbers show that Independents support marriage 57% to 40%. For moderates, the numbers are 58% in favor to 38% opposed. And Gallup found that nonwhite voters support marriage at levels a point higher than white voters, 50% to 48% (white voters are 49% to 49% in their survey). In fact, recent polls have consistently shown that Latino voters support marriage at a higher rate than white voters—54%, according to the National Council of La Raza.
3. Support for marriage is increasing among African Americans.
Marriage support among African American voters has jumped 18 points since 2009, from 32% to 50%, according to the latest Wall Street Journal poll. Pew also recently found that opposition to marriage among African Americans had decreased 18 points since 2004, from 67% to 49%, while opposition among white voters fell at the same rate, 18 points, from 61% to 43%. Strong opposition decreased dramatically among both groups, from about 4 in 10 to a quarter. And according to our own analysis of the Pew 2011 Political Typology Survey, 62% of African American Millennials (ages 18-30) support marriage for gay couples.
4. The past is not prologue.
A state’s vote or politics on this issue in 2004 is basically irrelevant to predict support for marriage in the state today. In 1996, 27% of the country supported marriage, now approximately 53% do. According to Pew, total opposition to marriage decreased from 60% to 43% since 2004, with strong opposition falling from 36% to 22%. Even 2008 votes were a lifetime ago in public opinion terms, since support has grown by multiple points a year in recent years—in 2008, Pew still found 51% opposed and 30% strongly opposed. In the last four years, Americans views have been changing at lightning speed—evidenced most recently by the President’s own personal evolution.
5. The North Carolina vote isn’t a bellwether.
The North Carolina amendment wasn’t supported by 60% of voters in the state, but by 60% of primary voters, of whom 50% were self-described conservatives. In a Presidential election, only 39% of North Carolina voters are conservatives, with a plurality identifying as moderates. So extrapolating this week’s vote to predict the political implications of the President’s decision nationwide—or even in North Carolina—is highly suspect.