May 24, 2008

California Polling: Bad News and Hope About Marriage Equality

Posted at 2:40 pm (Pacific Time)

A new Los Angeles Times/KTLA poll reveals some of the challenges facing supporters of marriage equality in California during the next 5 months. But it also suggests that passage of a state constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples is hardly a certainty.

The Bad News

At first glance, the poll results are likely to be disheartening to marriage equality supporters. A majority of participants said they disapprove of last week’s California Supreme Court decision that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Here’s the relevant question:

“As you may know, last week the California Supreme Court ruled that the California Constitution requires that same-sex couples be given the same right to marry that opposite-sex couples have. Based on what you know, do you approve or disapprove of the Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage in California?”

  • 41% Approve
  • 52% Disapprove
  • 7% Don’t know

The depth of public opposition to the Court’s ruling is indicated by the fact that 42% of those polled strongly disapproved of it, compared to only 29% who strongly approved.

These opinions generally translated into support for the proposed ballot initiative:

“As you may also know, a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution may appear on the November ballot which would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstate a ban on same-sex marriage. The amendment would state that marriage is only between a man and a woman. If the November election were held today, would you vote for or against the amendment to make marriage only between a man and a woman?”

  • 54% of registered voters would vote FOR it
  • 35% of registered voters would vote AGAINST it
  • 9% don’t know

A question about general attitudes toward legal recognition of relationships between two people of the same sex revealed that nearly two-thirds of California adults believe the state should recognize same-sex couples through marriage or civil unions:

  • 35% said “Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry.”
  • 30% said “Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally form civil unions, but not marry.”
  • 29% said “Same -sex couples should not be allowed to either marry or form civil unions.”
  • 6% were undecided.

These numbers indicate a small increase in support for marriage equality since April of 2004, when 31% of Californians said same-sex couples should be able to marry. They also indicate a similar rise in the proportion of Californians opposing any recognition of same-sex relationships, from 25% in 2004 to 29% now. The proportion endorsing civil unions but not marriage (effectively, the situation before last week’s Court ruling) decreased from 40% in 2004 to 30% now.

Respondents’ opinions about same-sex relationships didn’t perfectly predict their stated voting intentions. The LA Timesextended report on the poll includes the following breakdown of poll respondents:

  • 27% support marriage equality and plan to vote against the November initiative.
  • 21% oppose any legal recognition and plan to vote for the initiative.
  • 21% support civil unions but not marriage and plan to vote for the initiative.

These patterns are somewhat predictable. In addition, however:

  • 10% oppose marriage equality but plan to vote against the initiative.
  • 7% support marriage equality but plan to vote for the initiative.

Another 14% of respondents gave other combinations of answers to the two questions. Thus, a person’s stated attitudes toward marriage equality don’t necessarily reveal her or his voting intentions. In addition, some voters may be confused about the meaning of voting for the initiative versus opposing it.

Cause for Hope

At first glance, the polling numbers are likely to be disheartening to supporters of marriage equality. Some additional findings, however, offer hope for the fall election and suggest potential strategies for combating the ballot initiative.

First, whether or not the initiative passes will depend on who votes in the fall election. The Timesextended report on the poll noted that partisan affiliation and political ideology are key predictors of opinion about the initiative. And, compared to the voters who enacted the anti-marriage Proposition 22 in the March 2000 primary, historical turnout patterns suggest that those who vote this November will be more likely to be Democratic and liberal. When the LA Times analysts constructed a statistical model that factored in the likely characteristics of November voters, they found that “the amendment would still be ahead, but by half the margin found in the survey today.”

Second, although many California voters are currently opposed to marriage equality per se, their views of same-sex relationships are fairly positive. Consider the following results:

  • 59% agreed with the statement “As long as two people are in love and are committed to each other it doesn’t matter if they are a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple.”
  • 54% disagreed with the statement, “If gays are allowed to marry, the institution of marriage will be degraded,” while 41% agreed. At the extremes, 38% strongly disagreed and 31% strongly agreed.
  • Overall, only 39% said they “personally believe that same-sex relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong,” compared to 54% who said such relationships are “not a moral issue.”

Third, the poll reflects voters’ intentions “if the November election were held today.” More than 5 months remain until the actual vote, however, and the fact that only a small majority supports the initiative at this point may be a sign that its passage is in doubt. The LA Times article noted that “ballot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign” and, for this reason, “strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.” According to Susan Pinkus, the Times Poll Director, “Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure.”

Thus, California voters don’t overwhelmingly favor the initiative and, based on historical patterns, their support is likely to erode in the months ahead. Nor do most of them hold exceedingly hostile attitudes toward same-sex relationships. Moreover, those who will turn out to vote in November may be more supportive of marriage equality than the California population as a whole.

Strategies for Winning in November

Nevertheless, supporters of marriage rights in California clearly have a big job ahead of them. In that regard, the poll also highlights some key correlates of attitudes toward the ballot initiative, and thereby suggests approaches to confronting this challenge. In upcoming postings, I’ll discuss several such strategies. For now, I’ll focus on one.

For sexual minority Californians who want to rally opposition to the ballot measure, the poll highlights the importance of reaching out to heterosexual relatives, friends, and colleagues. Among survey respondents who said they don’t have a friend, family member or co-worker whom they know to be gay or lesbian, the ballot initiative was supported by a huge margin — 63% to 25%. But among those who said they know a gay or lesbian person, the initiative was supported by only a plurality — 47% to 41%.

Based on other empirical research about the effects of personal contact on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities, my guess is that these differences would have been even more pronounced if the poll had distinguished between participants who have a close relationship with a sexual minority individual and those who simply are acquainted with someone who isn’t heterosexual.

Interestingly, the benefits of having personal relationships were most pronounced among Democrats and independents. Support for marriage equality was 7 points higher among Democrats who know someone who is gay or lesbian than among Democrats who don’t. Among independents, the difference was 6 points.

Similarly, support for marriage equality was 9 points higher among liberals who know someone who is gay or lesbian, and 5 points higher among moderates. Among Republicans and conservatives, however, knowing a gay person added only a few percentage points.

This pattern could mean that political ideology and partisanship trump personal relationships in shaping attitudes toward marriage equality. Or it could mean that conservatives and Republicans have different kinds of relationships with sexual minorities than do moderates, liberals, Democrats, and independents. My own research, for example, indicates that personal relationships are more likely to reduce heterosexuals’ prejudices when they include open discussion of what it’s like to be gay or lesbian. Maybe conservative Republicans are less likely than others to have those conversations with their sexual minority acquaintances.

At any rate, this pattern — considered in conjunction with other research on sexual prejudice — suggests some actions that sexual minority Californians can start taking today:

  • Come out to your relatives and friends. Talk with them about what it’s like to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
  • If you’re in a committed relationship, introduce your partner to your heterosexual friends and family.
  • Talk with them about the initiative. Explain how it will adversely affect you and other people they care about.
  • Enlist them as allies; encourage them to persuade their friends to vote against the initiative.
  • If you’re planning a wedding, help your heterosexual guests to understand that your marriage may be rendered invalid if the initiative passes.

During the coming months, millions of dollars will be spent on advertising and mass media by both sides in the marriage debate. Those expensive campaigns, however, won’t have nearly as much impact on the vote as will California’s millions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents personally reaching out to their heterosexual friends and family members, and urging them to embrace marriage equality.

* * * * *

The Los Angeles Times/KTLA Poll contacted 834 adults (including 705 registered voters) in the state of California by telephone May 20 –21, 2008. An extended report on the poll results is available from the Times website.

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