October 31, 2008

Field Poll: Proposition 8 May Have A Photo Finish

Posted at 2:51 pm (Pacific Time)

Just in time for Halloween, the latest Field Poll brings some scary news for marriage equality supporters. But the results might also create a well-founded sense of foreboding among those who oppose marriage equality and want to write their views into the California constitution.

The poll indicates the Proposition 8 race has tightened considerably. Support for the constitutional amendment still hasn’t reached the 50% mark, but opposition has dropped to 49%.

Moreover, the 5-point gap between the 44% of likely voters who support Prop. 8 and the 49% who oppose it is now within the poll’s margin of error of +/- 3.3 points. In other words, the true proportion of YES voters in the population could range as high as 47.3% and the true number of NO voters could be as low as 45.7%.

About 7% of likely voters are still undecided.

Examining Trends

Ten days ago, I posted an analysis of the Proposition 8 polls conducted by Survey USA, and concluded that they probably undercounted Prop. 8 opponents but gave a more or less accurate reading of the number of the measure’s supporters. A few days later, data from a new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll supported that hypothesis. It showed that the race had tightened, but opponents still led supporters, 52% to 44%.

In statistical terms, the newest numbers from the Field Poll aren’t significantly different from the October PPIC findings — that is, when the respective polls’ margins of error are considered, their estimates of the proportion of YES voters in the California population overlap, and their estimates of the NO voters match.

When we look at the two polls in tandem, however, it appears that the NO position has eroded somewhat and now hovers around 50%. And the YES side appears to have increased its numbers substantially during the past month.

The graph below shows the trends in voters’ attitudes toward Prop. 8 since last May, using data from four statewide Field Polls (filled circles) and two PPIC polls (filled squares). In combination, the polls indicate the race was fairly stable until September, when both sides inaugurated their media campaigns (and when voter interest in the election traditionally begins to rise). At that point, support for Prop. 8 began to increase steadily (from 38% in September to 44% in October), while opposition declined (from a high of 55% to the latest figure of 49%).

Prop. 8 Polling Trend

Keep in mind that the data in the graph come from two different survey organizations, that somewhat different question wordings were used in different polls, and that all of these figures have a margin of error (ranging from about 2-4 points) associated with them.

Nevertheless, the new Field Poll data indicate that the race is much closer now than at any time since the California Supreme Court issued its historic ruling last May. Prop. 8 opponents have lost the comfortable lead they held throughout the summer.

On the other hand, Prop. 8 proponents have yet to register support from a majority of the public, which the amendment needs in order to pass.

Who’s Voting For and Against Prop. 8?

Compared to the September Field Poll, support for Prop. 8 appears to have increased in the Central Valley (where it’s now leading by a margin of 53-42%) , but also in Los Angeles, where it’s now losing by a plurality of only 48.5% to 43% — within the poll’s margin of error. By contrast, the September Field Poll found it to be losing in Los Angeles by nearly 25 points.

Support for Prop. 8 has increased to 75% among Republicans, but opposition among Democrats has dropped to 65%. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 44% to 34%, so this split still favors the NO side in terms of the raw vote count. But the fact that Democrats comprise about one fourth of the YES voters is a cause for concern among Prop. 8 opponents.

On the bright side for opponents, Independents and members of other parties still oppose Prop. 8 by a 2-to-1 margin, and political moderates oppose it 50.5% to 40%.

Consistent with previous surveys, women oppose Prop. 8 by a margin of 50.5% to 42%. However, men are now evenly split, 47% NO to 46% YES. The Proposition trails by margins of about 10 points among all age groups except voters who are 65 and older, among whom it is winning, 62% to 32%.

Given recent speculation about racial and ethnic differences in voting patterns, it is somewhat surprising that Latinos don’t differ substantially from non-Hispanic Whites — pluralities of both groups oppose Prop. 8. African Americans support the amendment by a plurality, while Asian Americans oppose it by a slight majority. However, corresponding to their representation among registered voters, the absolute numbers of African Americans and Asian Americans in the sample are fairly small and, in combination, they appear to cancel each other out.

A plurality of Catholics opposes Prop. 8, while Protestants support it by a margin of 60% to 33%. Within the latter group, three-fourths of self-described born-again Christians support it (59% of non-born-agains oppose it). The proposition is opposed by strong majorities of the non-religious (77%) and those affiliated with “other” religions (64%).

Most poll respondents (78%) said they personally know or work with someone who is gay or lesbian, and 51% of those respondents say they will vote NO. By contrast, 50% of respondents who say they don’t know gay people personally are planning to vote YES. Based on my own research, I speculate that opposition to the amendment is strongest among respondents who have actually discussed Prop. 8 (or other issues related to sexual orientation) with a gay or lesbian friend or family member. However, the Field Poll didn’t include a question about such conversations.

The survey also indicates that opponents of Prop. 8 are more likely than supporters to be planning to vote at their local precinct on Tuesday. Both sides are about equally represented among absentee voters, but more supporters than opponents say they’ve already mailed in their ballot. If that pattern persists, Prop. 8 opponents will begin Election Day with a deficit in absentee ballots that will have to be balanced by votes cast in the precinct polling places.

Related to this point, Obama supporters — who constitute 55% of California voters, according to the Field Poll — are disproportionately likely to vote NO on Prop. 8 (73% versus 21% who will vote YES). McCain voters are less numerous (33% of California voters) and they support Prop. 8 by an 84% to 13% margin. Thus, the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort may help to defeat Prop. 8. But Obama supporters who oppose Prop. 8 account for only about 40% of likely voters (73% of 55% = 40%).

Which Arguments Are Persuasive?

In addition to estimating the proportions of YES and NO voters, the latest Field Poll asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with various arguments for and against Prop. 8. Roughly half of the respondents were asked about each statement.

When interpreting these data, it’s useful to keep in mind that survey researchers often observe an “acquiescence bias.” When presented with assertions about an issue, poll respondents — especially those who don’t have strong opinions or are undecided — are more likely to agree than to disagree. There are many explanations for this pattern, including the generally plausible nature of most agree-disagree statements presented in surveys, the amount of mental effort it takes to marshal counter-arguments to them, and most respondents’ desire to be polite and agreeable.

Thus, it’s not unusual to find some respondents who agree with seemingly contradictory statements in the same survey.

Illustrating this pattern, 65% of the sample agreed that “The institution of traditional marriage between a man and a woman is one of the cornerstones of our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage,” which would appear to indicate strong support for the YES side. More than two thirds of undecided respondents agreed with this statement, as did 90% of YES voters and 39% of NO voters. (Recall that undecided voters constitute only 7% of the sample, so percentages from this group aren’t very reliable.)

But majorities also agreed with the following statements that appear to support the NO side:

  • 58% agreed that “Matters relating to the definition of marriage should not be written into the constitution.” (Most undecided voters agreed, as did 74% of NO voters and 41% of YES voters.)
  • 57.5% agreed that “Domestic partnership laws by themselves do not give gay and lesbian couples the same certainty and security that marriage laws provide.” (Half of undecided voters agreed, as did 72% of NO voters and a 45% plurality of YES voters.)
  • 57% agreed that “Extending new rights and legal protections to different peoples and lifestyles, such as gays and lesbians, benefits California and the nation in the long run.” (A plurality of undecided voters agreed, but almost as many were unsure about this statement.)
  • 61% agreed that “By eliminating the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, Prop. 8 denies one class of citizens the right to enjoy the dignity and responsibility of marriage.” (Undecided voters were closely divided on this statement.)

In light of the acquiescence bias, the statements with which most respondents disagreed are especially noteworthy:

  • 60% of the sample disagreed that “If Prop. 8 is not approved, the public schools could be required to teach kids that same sex marriage is as acceptable as traditional marriage in California.” (More than two thirds of undecided and NO voters disagreed, as did a 48% plurality of YES voters.)
  • 59% of the sample disagreed that “Gay rights leaders in California are moving too fast in their efforts to win new rights and legal protections for gays and lesbians.” (Most undecided voters disagreed, as did 87% of NO voters.)

And some other arguments favoring the YES side were endorsed by only a plurality or a bare majority, with a fair proportion of undecideds:

  • 50% agreed that “Prop. 8 restores the institution of traditional marriage between a man and a woman, while not removing any domestic partnership rights that had previously been granted to gay or lesbian couples” (Majorities of undecided and YES voters agreed, as did 23% of NO voters; but many undecideds were unsure about this statement.)
  • A 47% plurality of the sample agreed that “Prop. 8 reverses the flawed legal reasoning of activist judges who overturned the state’s previous voter-approved law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.” (While 73% of YES voters agreed, along with 26% of NO voters, most undecideds either disagreed or were unsure.)

But one argument from the NO side also evoked considerable uncertainty:

  • A 40% plurality agreed that “Followers of the Mormon Church are exerting too much influence on the state’s political process by underwriting an estimated 40 percent of the Yes on Proposition 8′s campaign contributions.” (While 55% of NO voters agreed, about half of undecideds and 29% of YES voters were unsure.)

Overall, these response patterns suggest that likely voters tend to endorse arguments that support their position, but many also accept arguments that appear to contradict their own stance. The NO side apparently has been effective at persuading most California voters that the YES side’s claims about schools and schoolchildren are incorrect. And more arguments in support of a NO vote receive majority support than do the arguments supporting a YES vote.

So why is the race so close?

Old Prejudices Die Hard

It’s noteworthy that this question is even being posed. Back in May, I would have been very surprised to know that Prop. 8 would be trailing in the polls just a few days before the election.

Perhaps instead we should be remarking on the fact that so many voters have proved reluctant to write antigay discrimination into the California constitution. The widespread opposition to Prop. 8, and the fact that proponents of the measure have been so careful not to publicly bash sexual minorities, are signs of a sea change in public attitudes.

Nevertheless, old prejudices die hard. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are still stigmatized throughout the United States and in much of California. Powerful groups — including the Mormon Church and Focus on the Family — have dedicated their vast resources to perpetuating sexual stigma. And many heterosexuals with generally enlightened attitudes are still uncomfortable thinking about same-sex relationships.

In my own research, I’ve found that heterosexuals’ opinions about marriage equality are very closely linked to their general attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Other factors are also important — including religious beliefs and political values — but antigay attitudes are usually the strongest predictor of marriage attitudes.

It would be surprising if antigay prejudice weren’t playing an important role in the California election. Such prejudice — coupled with the barrage of pro-Prop. 8 messages that many Californians have been getting from their religious leaders — may well account for the closeness of the contest, even though so many voters say they agree with key arguments against Prop. 8.

Nevertheless, Prop. 8 still has a good chance of being defeated. But the Field Poll results highlight the importance of swaying voters who are still undecided, and turning out the vote among Prop. 8 opponents.

If you oppose Prop. 8, no matter where you live, my advice is to talk (in person, on the phone, via e-mail) with your California friends, family, roommates, classmates, coworkers, and neighbors this weekend. Urge them to vote NO and, if you’re a California voter, tell them why you’re casting your vote against Prop. 8. The No On 8 website has some tools to assist with e-mail outreach.

And then do everything you can to ensure that they vote by Tuesday evening at 8 pm.

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The most recent survey report can be downloaded from the Field Poll website.

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

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October 21, 2008

Proposition 8: A Closer Look At Those Poll Numbers

Posted at 6:02 pm (Pacific Time)

Ever since California county clerks began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last June, Proposition 8 — the proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate marriage equality — has appeared likely to lose at the ballot box. Throughout the summer, statewide surveys from the Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) consistently found that the measure lacked majority support. In fact, it was opposed by more than 50% of likely voters.

But earlier this month, a new poll of Californians’ voting intentions on Proposition 8 was released, sponsored by several CBS local affiliates and conducted by SurveyUSA. Here’s a section of the news report on the poll findings:

According to the poll, likely California voters overall now favor passage of Proposition 8 by a five-point margin, 47 percent to 42 percent. Ironically, a CBS 5 poll eleven days prior found a five-point margin in favor of the measure’s opponents.

The only demographic group to significantly change their views during this period were younger voters — considered the hardest to poll and the most unpredictable voters — who now support the measure after previously opposing it.

Last week, the same survey organization released new data showing that the ballot race is a statistical dead heat, with 48% supporting Prop. 8 and 45% opposing it (the margin of error is +/- 4 points).

In combination, these polls indicated a surprising shift in California opinion, and they received a lot of media attention. The No On 8 campaign publicized them to warn Californians that Proposition 8 has a serious chance of passage and to galvanize marriage equality supporters to donate to the campaign. Many couples moved up their wedding date in order to have their marriage officially recorded before the election, banking on Attorney General Brown’s opinion that Proposition 8, if passed, won’t apply retroactively.

A Closer Look At Those Data

I certainly agree that the race will probably tighten as November 4 approaches. A September Field poll revealed that voters who haven’t previously thought much about Proposition 8 can be swayed by the measure’s wording on the ballot. And the multi-million dollar media campaign that is now being waged is likely to have already influenced some voters. Thus, in the next two weeks, undecided voters will make their choice, and some “soft” supporters and opponents of the measure will change their minds.

So marriage equality supporters can’t afford to be complacent. Nevertheless, I’d like to register my skepticism about the recent polling data.

The polls showing Prop. 8 winning or tied were conducted by SurveyUSA, a New York firm that specializes in automated surveys. These are surveys that don’t use a human interviewer. Instead, when someone answers the phone, they hear a prerecorded voice (perhaps a local newscaster) asking them to use the telephone keypad to register their answers to a few questions.

According to its website, SurveyUSA:

is the first research company to appreciate that opinion research can be made more affordable, more consistent and in some ways more accurate by eliminating the single largest cost of conducting research, and a possible source of bias: the human interviewer.

The company claims that its polls are superior to others because they eliminate the variability in quality that results from having human interviewers.

A point not mentioned on their website is that many people have a tendency to hang up when they answer the phone and hear a recorded voice. Another problem is that, because no human interviewers confirm a respondent’s eligibility, anyone who answers the telephone — a child or teenager, a babysitter, an out of town guest — can complete the survey. These factors might affect the accuracy of SurveyUSA data.

On the other hand, survey participants are sometimes more willing to reveal potentially sensitive or embarrassing information about themselves to a computer than to a human interviewer. A 2006 study, for example, found that adults were more likely to acknowledge having had sex with a person of their same sex when the interview was conducted via computer rather than with a live interviewer. But it’s not clear that a significant number of Californians are reluctant to say whether they support or oppose Prop. 8. And, unlike SurveyUSA polls, the 2006 survey was first introduced and explained to respondents by a live interviewer.

Comparing Polls

To repeat a recurring theme of this blog, any poll is merely a snapshot of public opinion at one moment in time. Because opinion can shift and polls vary in their accuracy, it’s important to evaluate a survey’s findings in comparison to other polls that addressed the same topic.

So here are the SurveyUSA findings:

June 9: 44% support, 38% oppose (18% undecided)

September 25: 44% support, 49% oppose (7% undecided)

October 6: 47% support, 42% oppose (10% undecided)

October 17: 48% support, 45% oppose (7% undecided)

For comparison purposes, here are the results from the Field and PPIC polls:

May 28 (Field): 42% support, 51% oppose (6% undecided)

July 18 (Field): 42% support, 51% oppose (7% undecided)

August 27 (PPIC): 40% support, 54% oppose (6% undecided)

September 18 (Field): 38% support, 55% oppose (7% undecided)

September 24 (PPIC): 41% support, 55% oppose (6% undecided)

All of the polls show support for Proposition 8 hovering in the low-to-mid 40s, except the most recent SurveyUSA data, which have it gaining – but still not at 50%.

Where they disagree the most is in their estimates of the proportion of Californians who oppose Prop. 8. The Field and PPIC polls put opponents in the majority. Survey USA has them ranging between 38% and 49%.

Election polls can differ for many reasons, including how questions were worded, when the poll was fielded, and how the survey organization defined what constitutes a “likely voter.” Activists and pundits have assumed that the dramatic differences between the SurveyUSA polls and the PPIC and Field polls reflect a real shift in public opinion. They attribute that shift to the Yes On 8 media campaign — which has included images of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom gleefully proclaiming that marriage equality is here “whether you like it or not,” as well as inaccurate claims that failing to pass Proposition 8 will lead to the harassment of churches and pro-gay indoctrination of children.

Those ads may indeed have affected undecided voters and Californians whose opposition to Prop. 8 wasn’t strong. But my guess is that the big difference between SurveyUSA and the Field and PPIC polls lies in the quality of their samples.

The Field and PPIC polls are conducted over a longer time period. This usually results in better data because more people in the original sample are reached than is possible when a poll is in the field for only one or two days. When Field and PPIC researchers don’t reach a respondent on their first attempt, they phone back at least five times.

With overnight and 2-day polls, by contrast, anyone who isn’t home on the first or second try is simply dropped from the sample. This creates an accuracy problem if those people differ from the poll respondents in a way that is relevant to the survey question — in the case of Prop. 8, for example, if they are younger or more liberal than the people who happened to be home when the phone rang. Pollsters try to account for the missing respondents by mathematically weighting the data, but this always involves guesswork.

A second strength of the Field Poll sample is that it’s drawn from official voter registration lists, and respondents are contacted through the address and phone number they provided when they registered. So the Field Poll sample includes registered voters who rely mainly or exclusively on a cell phone. By contrast, the SurveyUSA and PPIC samples were selected through random-digit dialing (RDD), a method widely used in telephone surveys. Individuals without a land line are almost always excluded from RDD samples.

Are cell phone users different from other voters in a way that is relevant to Prop. 8? Maybe. Data from the Pew Research Center suggest that samples based exclusively on land-line calling probably underestimate support for Barack Obama by about 2 percentage points because Obama has a disproportionate amount of youth support, and many young voters rely exclusively on cell phones.

More to the point, Pew researcher Scott Keeter and his colleagues used data from a national survey that included cell-phone users to compare the opinions of adults under 30 on a range of topics. They found that only 37% of young adults in land-line households supported marriage equality, compared to 51% of those who relied on cell phones.

Keeter also found that Pew statisticians were able to effectively compensate for this discrepancy by applying statistical weights to the data from land-line surveys.

We don’t know if SurveyUSA weighting procedures are comparable.

Relevant to this point, the recent SurveyUSA polls have found that voters under 35 either strongly support Proposition 8 (by a margin of 53% to 39% in the October 6 poll) or are closely divided (44% Yes to 46% No in the October 17 poll). By contrast, most polls in California and elsewhere have found that young adults generally favor marriage equality. In my mind, this raises some doubts about the accuracy of the SurveyUSA data.

On Balance…

My own guess is that the Field Poll, by virtue of its sample drawn from the voter registration rolls, probably describes current opinion among California voters more accurately than the SurveyUSA data. The fact that the PPIC poll data have closely tracked the Field Poll results over the summer further boosts my confidence in both surveys. I suspect that the SurveyUSA data are more or less accurately stating the number of likely voters who support Prop. 8, but are undercounting the number who oppose it.

But this is only an educated guess. We’ll have a better sense of current California opinion on the ballot measure when the next round of PPIC and Field Poll results are released, which is likely to be soon.

Meanwhile, even if the SurveyUSA results have important limitations, they highlight two key facts.

First, many Californians are still making up their minds about Prop. 8 and can be swayed during the next two weeks by conversations with their friends and family, endorsements by public figures whom they respect, and media campaigns. This means it’s important for marriage equality supporters to continue to donate to the No On 8 campaign, to declare their opposition to Prop. 8 in public forums, and to personally explain their views about the measure to their friends and family.

Second, voter turnout will be critical. Regardless of whether most Californians support or oppose Proposition 8 today, what truly matters is who votes — whether by absentee ballot, in early voting, or at their polling place on November 4th.

Thus, equality supporters should make sure that their friends, family, roommates, classmates, coworkers, and neighbors vote.

* * * * *

For more information about surveys and cell phones, see the article by Scott Keeter et al., “What’s Missing from National Landline RDD Surveys?: The Impact of the Growing Cell-Only Population,” in Public Opinion Quarterly, 2007, vol. 71(#5), pp. 772-792.

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

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