June 9, 2008

USA Today Poll: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Posted at 9:48 am (Pacific Time)

From the June 3 USA Today:

Six in 10 Americans say the government should not regulate whether gays and lesbians can marry the people they choose, a survey finds…. The USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 63% of adults say same-sex marriage is “strictly a private decision” between two people. That the government has the right “to prohibit or allow” such marriages was stated by 33%, and 4% had no opinion.

The article goes on to report that “a majority of respondents at every level of education and income say same-sex marriage is ‘strictly private.’” This was true in every geographic region, among all age groups under 65 years, and among people who say a relative, friend or co-worker personally has told them he or she was gay or lesbian.

Sixty-three percent? Has a sea change occurred in American public opinion, with a clear majority now supporting marriage equality?

Probably not.

The Results in Context

When we compare the USA Today findings with those of other respected national polls, the inconsistencies are glaring. For example, surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have found that:

In the time since the Massachusetts high court declared the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional in 2003, public opinion on the issue has remained relatively stable. Indeed, majorities of Americans have consistently opposed legalizing same-sex marriage — from 53% opposed in a summer 2003 survey conducted by [Pew], to 55% opposed in an August 2007 Pew survey. The 2007 poll found 36% of the public in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, about the same as in 2003.

A May 11th survey conducted by Gallup (this one without USA Today as a sponsor) asked respondents “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?” 56% said they should not be recognized by the law as valid, while 40% said they should be valid. Like the Pew Center’s surveys, Gallup has found these opinions to be fairly stable during recent years. In 2004, for example, 55% said same-sex marriages should not be valid, and 42% said they should be valid.

Thus, data from the Pew Center and Gallup (and others as well) don’t support the conclusion that a substantial majority of Americans oppose government prohibitions against marriages between two people of the same sex.

Reconsidering the USA Today Data

How can we explain the anomalous USA Today findings? When a survey’s results are so at odds with other polls, it’s a good idea to scrutinize its methodology even more closely than usual.

Let’s assume that the USA Today sample wasn’t dramatically less representative of the population than those used by the earlier Gallup surveys, and instead focus on how the question’s wording and its location in the interview might have affected the outcome.

Unfortunately, the USA Today article doesn’t clearly detail the question wording. Apparently, however, survey participants were presented with pairs of statements about different types of marriages. From each pair, they selected the one that better matched their own opinion. The order of questions seems to have been the same for everyone.

The questions went something like this (I’ve highlighted key differences):

1. “In marriage involving two people of different religions, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”

2. “In marriage involving two people of different races, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”

3. “In marriage involving two people of the same sex, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”

The choice is always between saying that the decision to marry is a private matter versus endorsing the view that the government has the right to pass laws about marriage. The problem, I suspect, is that these alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive in the minds of most people.

Deciding to marry is not the same thing as actually having that marriage recognized by the state. Opponents of marriage equality might agree that a decision by two women or two men to marry is a private one, even as they oppose State recognition of that marriage. Their likelihood of endorsing the “private matter” option might have been increased by their responses to the preceding questions about interfaith and interracial marriages, which could have made salient their belief that adults’ marital decisions are private.

USA Today probably included the phrase “strictly a private decision” to clearly distinguish that option from the “pass laws” alternative. But it apparently didn’t work for many people.

To be sure, more respondents chose the “private matter” option for interfaith and interracial marriages (97% and 95%, respectively) than for same-sex relationships (63%). So respondents weren’t automatically selecting the “private matter” option for every question. Perhaps the first two questions were easier to answer — respondents knew that they considered those types of marriage decisions to be private and that the government has no legal right to prohibit them. Most respondents probably felt that same-sex coupling is also a private decision but many also believed the government can refuse to recognize them. Faced with the question’s ambiguities (e.g., was it asking whether the government could prevent the decision to marry or the marriage itself?), a large number of respondents selected the privacy option.

In two subsequent questions, relatively few said that polygamous marriages or marriages between people under 16 are strictly private (30% and 18%, respectively). This probably reflects a view among many respondents that such marriages aren’t simply a private decision (e.g., that young minors aren’t capable of making a decision to marry) and that the State has a right to prohibit them. Such reactions were likely reinforced by news coverage during recent months of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which included allegations of forced marriages and physical abuse of young girls.

Whatever the reason, the USA Today poll results just don’t fit with what we know about current opinion on marriage equality.

The lessons: Be a critical consumer of empirical research. Always read the wording of a survey’s questions and, whenever possible, compare the findings to other available data.

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 4, 2008

California Court: Weddings Can Begin on June 17

Posted at 1:57 pm (Pacific Time)

According to a news article this morning by Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News:

The California Supreme Court today rejected a bid to freeze last month’s ruling legalizing gay marriage, paving the way for same-sex couples to begin walking down the aisle as soon as June 17.

Moving swiftly to remove legal uncertainty, the court turned away a request from gay marriage foes to stay the ruling until after the November election, when voters will consider a ballot measure that would change the state Constitution to again outlaw same-sex weddings. The secretary of state earlier this week qualified the initiative for the November ballot.

The justices were divided 4-3 on whether to rehear their earlier decision, the same split that unfolded when the gay marriage case was decided in May. Conservative organizations, joined by 11 other states, asked the court to reopen the case, a move opposed by civil rights groups, San Francisco city officials and Attorney General Jerry Brown.

The Court’s action may have important consequences for public opinion in California which, according to a recent Field Poll, already supports marriage equality.

A considerable body of research shows that heterosexuals are more likely to have positive feelings toward lesbians and gay men when they have close personal relationships with sexual minorities. It is also likely that knowing a friend or family member’s same-sex partner further enhances positive attitudes. And those favorable attitudes may well translate into a commitment to support policies that favor equality.

Thus, attending a friend or relative’s wedding to a same-sex partner this summer may lead many heterosexual Californians to decide to vote against the constitutional amendment in November.

I’ll discuss this idea at greater length in a future post.

UPDATE (June 6): In response to a request from the City of San Francisco, the California Office of Vital Records today announced that all California counties may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 5 pm on Monday, June 16.

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 3, 2008

Charles Moskos, DADT Architect, Dies

Posted at 3:36 pm (Pacific Time)

Charles Moskos, the military sociologist who helped to craft the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, died of cancer on May 31.

Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University from 1966 until his retirement in 2003, is credited with helping to design AmeriCorps and was an expert on racial integration in the military. His books include The Military: More Than Just a Job?, Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, and The Postmodern Military. He received numerous honors and awards, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Distinguished Service Award, the US Army’s highest decoration for a civilian.

In recent years, however, he was best known for his role in helping to design the US military’s current policy on gay personnel.

According to an obituary posted on the Michael D. Palm Center website:

Until the end of his life, Moskos was always willing to engage his colleagues in discussions of ideas, and he held steadfastly to his beliefs even when they were unpopular. According to Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin, “Charlie consistently defended the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, but was also concerned about the effect it was having on gay and lesbian troops.” Scholars and activists on all sides of this issue were impressed over the years with Moskos’s ability to defend and critique the policy. In 2000, for instance, he called the effects of the policy “insidious” because gays and lesbians have sometimes been cowed into tolerating harassment because they were fearful that reporting it could bring them unwanted scrutiny.

Belkin added that, “Moskos operated in a tradition of practical sociology that affected people’s lives in tangible ways. His passion, intellect and good nature will be sorely missed.”

Palm Center Senior Research Fellow Nathaniel Frank’s review of Moskos’ role in the DADT debate can be found on their website.

Discussions of the social science data relevant to the DADT policy can be found in my 2006 post, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Redux, and in the Beyond Homophobia archives.

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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