November 8, 2008
Was the passage of Prop. 8 always a foregone conclusion, despite poll results throughout the summer and early fall showing most likely voters opposed it?
Or were the major polls correct, and the sentiment of California voters actually shifted in the weeks leading up to Election Day, from opposition to support?
Some Prop. 8 supporters maintained throughout the campaign that survey results consistently understated support for their side because many respondents wished not to appear bigoted to a pollster. They cited a “study” they had conducted with polling data from previous state anti-equality campaigns to support their argument.
And Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, asserted in a September letter to marriage equality supporters that:
There is typically a 7-10 point difference between what people tell the pollster about their views on LGBT rights and how they really vote. In other words 7-10% say they believe in equality but actually vote against us.
The existence of a racial Bradley effect — i.e., a pattern in which the polls’ accuracy is affected by significant numbers of racist Whites lying to pollsters and saying they would vote for a Black candidate — has been widely disputed, and wasn’t evident in polling this year.
But was there a gay Bradley effect in California?
In a September article in The Advocate, political scientist Patrick Egan answered this question in the negative, concluding that voters were largely telling pollsters the truth. “If any such reluctance [to tell the truth] exists with regard to same-sex marriage initiatives,” Egan said, based on his examination of polling data from previous campaigns, “it is small — about two points on average since 1998. In 2006 it was effectively zero.”
Now that the election results are in, we can compare the actual vote tallies to the last Field poll before Election Day. My own reading of the data is that they reveal no evidence that survey respondents said they would vote No when they actually supported the measure.
The final Field Poll, conducted about one week before the election and released on October 31, indicated that 49% of likely voters opposed the measure. The margin of error was +/- 3.3 points, so the poll’s estimate was that opposition in the population of California voters ranged between 46% and 52% at that time.
The official tally so far (which still excludes some absentee and provisional ballots) puts the actual No vote at 48%, well within the range of the Field Poll’s estimate.
The same Field Poll found that 44% of likely voters supported Prop. 8 a week before the election, and another 7% were undecided. Factoring in the margin of error, the poll’s estimate of the actual population proportions ranged as high as 47% for the Yes side, with anywhere from 4-10% undecided.
These numbers fall short of the final Yes tally, but it’s not difficult to construct a scenario whereby they are consistent with the Prop. 8 win on Election Day.
First, if most of the undecideds ultimately voted Yes (the pattern that apparently occurred with antigay Prop. 22 in 2000), the result would have been close to what happened on Tuesday.
Add to this the fact that the No vote was trending downward in the weeks leading up to the election. Polls by Field and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimated that opposition was around 55% in September. But it declined to 52% in an October PPIC poll and 49% in the final Field Poll a week later. To the extent that those declining numbers indicated that “soft” No voters were in the process of switching to the Yes side, it would help to account for the election day outcome.
Finally, turnout in this election was unusually high, especially among groups that historically haven’t voted in large numbers. This created unique challenges for pollsters in identifying likely voters. To the extent that the criteria used by the various survey organizations to estimate turnout in advance of Election Day were inaccurate — especially among key voter groups — their figures would have missed the mark.
In the final Field Poll, for example, African Americans were projected to constitute about 6% of likely voters, and a plurality of about 49% said they supported Prop. 8; another 9% (roughly) were undecided. These figures were derived from interviews with a fairly small number of Black respondents, so the margin of error was substantial (perhaps as much as +/- 12 points) and generalizing from them is risky. If we simply take them at face value, they suggest that Blacks’ contributions to the total vote a week before the election was about 3 points on the Yes side, and slightly less on the No side. Taking the margin of error into account, however, Blacks’ support for Prop. 8 could have ranged as high as 60%. And the undecideds could have subsequently added even more to that total — especially if they were persuaded to vote Yes by appeals from the pulpit on the Sunday before Election Day.
Exit polls were consistent with the latter scenario, finding that about 70% of Blacks ultimately voted Yes. Moreover, they constituted 10% of voters — not 6% — making the impact of their opposition considerably stronger.
It’s important to remember that exit polls — like any survey based on a sampling of the population — have a margin of error associated with their estimates. And the margin can be large for relatively small groups. In the case of Blacks’ votes, the exit poll’s error is probably +/- 5 to 6 points, and there remains the bigger question of whether the specific precincts that were sampled yielded an accurate reflection of African Americans statewide.
Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that Blacks ultimately provided substantial support for the Yes side — perhaps enough to account for the election outcome. Most likely, there are other groups for whom turnout projections were also incorrect and, in combination with the downward trend in No voters and last-minute decisions by undecideds, these factors can probably account for the disparities between pre-election polling and the actual outcome.
Thus, it’s difficult to conclude that significant numbers of Prop. 8 supporters lied to pollsters and said they were planning to vote No. Perhaps some Yes voters disingenuously told researchers they were undecided, but it’s equally plausible that most undecideds truly didn’t make up their minds until late in the campaign, perhaps not until Election Day.
At any rate, the so-called “study” that Prop. 8 supporters posted on their web site in mid-September and promoted to the media as evidence of the “gay Bradley effect” can’t really be taken seriously. Even a cursory examination of the polling data they used reveals several glaring problems:
- They ignored the polls’ margin of error. In more than 40% of the polls cited in the “study,” the discrepancy between the poll estimate and the actual vote was 5% or less. For many statewide polls, this is within the margin of error.
- They only noted undercounts in the anti-equality vote, suggesting that all discrepancies resulted from voters telling pollsters they supported the right of same-sex couples to marry but then voting against marriage equality. But in many of the polls listed in their spreadsheet, the actual vote counts against the anti-gay measures also were higher than the polls’ estimates. How can this be? The answer lies with the undecided poll respondents. They had to make a decision in the voting booth and they tended to favor the winning side — which was anti-equality in all cases except the 2006 Arizona campaign.
- They included polls that were conducted weeks (in some cases, months) before the election. As all pollsters know, surveys are usually more accurate to the extent that they’re completed close to voting time. But the “study” included polls that were published more than a month before election day.
- They were selective in which polls they picked. For example, in the 2004 Arkansas election for Amendment 3, the “study” used an October Zogby poll, which indicated that 65% of respondents supported the amendment. But an Opinion Research Poll released in late October found that 77% of Arkansas voters supported Amendment 3, slightly more than actually voted for it.
In summary, I don’t believe that the findings of the PPIC and Field Polls leading up to the election were wrong. Rather, I suggest we assume that a majority of typical California voters truly were opposed to eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry throughout the summer, but their numbers began eroding by October. Among actual voters, supporters of Prop. 8 came to outnumber opponents by Election Day, albeit by a surprisingly small margin. (Recall that just 8 years ago Prop. 22 won by more than 20 points.)
Thus, we can use the PPIC and Field Poll data as a tool for better understanding how the various strategies pursued by each side between May and November ultimately affected the outcome of the election.
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.
October 21, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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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.
September 18, 2008
In previous posts, I’ve discussed research showing that some survey respondents are more reluctant to forbid or ban something than to simply “not allow” it. And I’ve discussed how this pattern might be relevant to Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying.
Briefly stated, past studies suggest that at least some voters might be influenced by how the ballot measure is worded — somewhat less likely to support a proposition framed as banning marriage equality, somewhat more likely to support one that is framed as simply defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Opponents of marriage equality apparently understand the importance of wording, and they’ve gone to court about it.
Originally, the official ballot summary was set to use language developed by Proposition 8 backers, which titled it “Limit On Marriage” and characterized it as amending the California Constitution “to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
After the Supreme Court’s historic May ruling on marriage equality, however, Attorney General Jerry Brown changed the title to “Eliminates the Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.”
Proposition 8 supporters challenged Brown’s revised wording, but last month a California Superior Court judge gave the go-ahead for it to appear on the ballot.
The New Field Poll
Now an experiment embedded in a new Field Poll has shown that the wording does have an impact, mainly on voters who aren’t already knowledgeable about Proposition 8.
The latest poll was conducted with a statewide sample of 830 likely voters drawn from the voter registration rolls. Roughly half of the respondents — selected at random — were read the official ballot description of Proposition 8:
Proposition 8 is the initiative to Eliminate the Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry constitutional amendment. It changes the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry and provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Fiscal impact: Potential revenue loss, mainly to sales taxes, totaling several tens of millions of dollars to state and local government over the next few years. If the election were being held today, would you vote YES or NO on Proposition 8?
The other half were read the original description:
“Proposition 8 is the Limit on Marriage constitutional amendment. It amends the California constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Fiscal impact: Potential revenue loss mainly to sales taxes, totaling several tens of millions of dollars to state and local government over the next few years. If the election were being held today, would you vote YES or NO on Proposition 8?”
In the sample as a whole, the different ways of framing the amendment showed only a minor impact — 55% opposed Proposition 8 when it was framed as eliminating marriage rights, compared to 52% who opposed it when it was framed as merely placing a limit on marriage. Regardless of the wording, 38% of likely voters said they would support Proposition 8.
This overall pattern, however, masks the wording’s big impact on a particular group — the 30% of likely voters who reported they hadn’t previously heard about Proposition 8. Only a plurality of these respondents opposed the measure when it was described as a limit on marriage — 42% versus 37% who supported it. But when the ballot measure was framed as eliminating marriage rights for same-sex couples, a whopping 58% opposed it while only 30% supported it.
The different versions also affected the level of uncertainty among those who otherwise weren’t aware of Prop. 8. In this group, 21% of those who were read the “limit on marriage” description said they were undecided, compared to only 12% of those who were read the actual ballot version.
Increased Opposition Among Key Groups
The new survey also reveals increased opposition to Prop. 8 among some key demographic groups, compared to the mid-July poll. Opposition has increased among Democrats from 63% to 75%, and among men from 49% to 54%.
Notably, despite Proposition 8′s endorsement by California’s Catholic bishops, the latest poll finds that Catholic voters are substantially more likely to oppose it than in the past (55% oppose it now, compared to 45% in July).
And even in the state’s inland counties, support for Prop. 8 has shrunk considerably. In July, inland voters favored it by a margin of 54% to 40%. Now it’s a statistical dead heat: 48% oppose it, 44% support it.
Despite the good news for marriage equality supporters, the latest poll data shouldn’t lead them to be complacent. California voters oppose Proposition 8 now, but what will count is the actual vote on November 4. The amendment can still pass if its supporters turn out their voters in disproportionate numbers.
Thus, the success of each side’s get-out-the-vote effort could be the key to whether or not marriage equality survives in California.
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The report on the latest Field Poll is available on their website.
August 28, 2008
Supporters of marriage equality got some good news last night when the results of the latest statewide poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California were released.
The telephone survey of 2,001 California adults, including 1,047 likely voters, reveals that Proposition 8 — the proposed constitutional amendment to bar same-sex couples from marrying — is losing badly. Among likely voters, only 40% plan to vote for the amendment, compared to 54% who say they will vote against it. The remaining 6% are undecided. (The margin of error is +/- 3 percent.)
The PPIC data are identical to those obtained in a May Field Poll, which found the same 54-40% split in response to the question, “Do you favor or oppose changing the California State Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus barring marriage between gay and lesbian couples?” (In the same Field Poll, a differently-worded question also elicited majority opposition to a constitutional amendment, 51-43%.)
In the new survey, PPIC interviewers essentially read the ballot description to each respondent before asking their voting intentions:
“Proposition 8 is called the ‘Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry Initiative Constitutional Amendment.’ It changes the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. It provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Fiscal impact over the next few years includes potential revenue loss, mainly sales taxes, totaling in the several tens of millions of dollars, to state and local governments. In the long run, it will likely have little fiscal impact on state and local governments. If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on Proposition 8?
Thus, the new poll gave respondents the same information they’ll receive when they cast their ballot.
Who Supports and Opposes Proposition 8?
The PPIC hasn’t yet released detailed breakdowns of responses to the Prop. 8 question, which was part of a lengthy survey about candidates and issues related to the November election. However, their press release and report highlighted some key patterns:
- Consistent with previous polls, geography and political ideology are important predictors of support for Prop. 8. Among likely voters, the amendment is favored by Republicans (60%) and those who reside in the state’s Central Valley (51%). But it’s opposed by 66% of Democrats, 59% of independents, 65% of San Francisco Bay Area residents, and 54% of Los Angeles residents.
- Among likely voters, women strongly oppose Prop. 8 (58% would vote no, 35% yes), while men are more closely divided (49% no, 45% yes).
- Married likely voters are less likely than the never-married to oppose Prop. 8 (51% vs. 66%).
- Prop. 8 is opposed by similar proportions of Latino (54%) and non-Hispanic White (55%) likely voters.
Another interesting finding is that opposition to Prop. 8 doesn’t come exclusively from those who say they generally favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. The sample was evenly split on that question — 47% of likely voters favoring marriage equality and 47% opposing it. Thus, consistent with other polls, some respondents who don’t personally support marriage equality nevertheless oppose enacting anti-equality legislation. Indeed, Prop. 8 is supported by only 69% of the likely voters who generally oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Proposition 8 Backers Rationalize The Results
Marriage equality opponents blamed the results on Prop. 8′s official title and summary description, which explicitly frames it as eliminating marriage rights for same-sex couples. As I explained in a previous post, survey research over the years has shown that wording can make a difference. Although “not allowing” something would appear to be equivalent to “forbidding” it, people are generally more reluctant to forbid than to not allow.
Indeed, a July Field Poll that described the ballot measure with the language favored by its supporters (the survey question said Prop. 8 would “provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) registered slightly less opposition. However, likely voters still rejected it by a margin of 51% to 42%.
Prop. 8 backers tried to find a ray of hope in the PPIC data, noting that amendment supporters were more likely to say the outcome of the vote is “very important” to them — 57% versus 44% of amendment opponents.
Unfortunately for them, the math in this argument is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the fact that there are fewer Prop. 8 supporters than opponents. 57% of the 40% who would vote YES = 23% of respondents saying they support Prop. 8 and the vote is “very important” to them. But 44% of the 54% who would vote NO = 24% of likely voters saying they oppose the amendment and it’s very important.
In other words, about the same number on each side of the issue feel strongly about the initiative. And if we include respondents who said the vote is “somewhat important,” 40% of the sample oppose Prop. 8 and consider the vote important, compared to only 34% who support the initiative and feel it’s important.
Conclusion: Cautious Optimism For Equality Supporters
Not only do the data indicate that Prop. 8 is losing — conventional wisdom holds that ballot measures should have more than 50% support at this stage of the campaign if they’re going to pass — but they may contribute to a widespread expectation that the initiative will go down in flames. Such a perception could affect fundraising (donors often don’t want to throw money at a lost cause) and might create a bandwagon effect (undecided voters may opt to go with the side they believe will win).
Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake for Prop. 8 opponents to be overconfident. The election will be decided by the Californians who actually vote, and Prop. 8 backers are busy mobilizing their base, especially in church congregations. And it’s always possible that events during the next 10 weeks will affect voters’ perceptions in a way that favors Prop. 8.
Noting those caveats, however, the PPIC data are certainly cause for optimism among marriage equality supporters.
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The report on the latest PPIC statewide poll is available on their website.
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