October 31, 2008
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.
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%).
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.