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.
July 18, 2008
The first California statewide poll to directly measure public opinion about Proposition 8 — the so-called California Marriage Protection (CaMP) Act, a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban marriage equality — suggests the ballot measure is in serious trouble.
As reported at ProtectMarriageEquality.com, a Field Poll commissioned by Oakland’s KTVU-TV found that the marriage ban is supported by only 42% of Californians, while 51% oppose it. The remaining 7% are undecided.
Consistent with previous polls by the LA Times and the Field Research Corporation, the new survey found that support for the amendment is strongest in California’s politically conservative Central Valley, where it is favored by 54%. By contrast, coastal residents — who constitute 69% of the population of likely voters — oppose it by a margin of 56% to 37%. The percentages against Prop. 8 were 67% in the San Francisco Bay Area and 51% in Los Angeles County.
Republicans overwhelmingly support the amendment by a margin of 68% to 27%, while Democrats oppose it 63% to 30%. Notably, Independents oppose it 66% to 27%.
Proposition 8 is opposed by a majority of women (54%, versus 40% who support it) and a plurality of men (49% to 45%).
The only ethnic group tending to support the amendment is Latinos, who favor it by a 49% to 38% plurality. However, 13% of Latinos are still undecided. Non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans, and Asian-Americans all oppose Proposition 8.
The amendment is supported by a plurality of Californians who say they don’t personally know anyone who is gay or lesbian. However, that group constitutes only one fourth of the respondents. Those who know or work with a gay or lesbian person oppose the amendment 54% to 40%.
Good News for Equality Supporters
The poll numbers offer a double dose of hope for supporters of marriage equality. Not only do the data indicate that the ballot proposition is currently losing outright, they also suggest that its prospects for gaining support during the coming months may be dim.
In a previous post about an earlier LA Times poll (which was conducted before marriages of same-sex couples actually began in California and which found slight majority support for a hypothetical ballot measure), I quoted the Times‘ observation that:
“…[B]allot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign” and, for this reason, “strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.” According to Susan Pinkus, the Times Poll Director, “Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure.”
Thus, the measure’s lack of majority support now — less than 4 months before the election — indicates that the Christian conservatives who propose to write marriage inequality into the California constitution have their work cut out for them.
Reasons for Caution
Although the poll results are good news for equality supporters, it would be a mistake to take victory in November for granted for at least three reasons.
First, we’ll need data from more surveys with comparable samples to be sure that the Field Poll results accurately describe California opinion at this time.
Second, although it is indeed a hopeful sign that the amendment lacks majority support at this point in the campaign, many things can happen between now and the November election that might shift voters’ opinions.
Third, past experience indicates that polls may understate the true opposition to marriage equality among the California electorate. In 2000, the final Field Poll before the election indicated that 53% of likely voters supported Proposition 22, the anti-equality Knight Initiative that the California Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional. On election day, 61% voted for it.
Thus, the new poll should invigorate supporters of marriage equality in California. But it shouldn’t make them complacent.
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The KTVU/Field Poll data were obtained through telephone interviews conducted in English and Spanish with a random sample of 672 California likely voters from July 8-14. The margin of error for the question about Proposition 8 is 3.9 percentage points.
Poll respondents were asked the following question: “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. If the election were being held today, would you vote YES or NO on Proposition 8, the Limit on Marriage Constitutional Amendment?”
The full report is available at the Field Poll website.
Note: This entry has been updated to include additional details about the survey that were released subsequent to its initial posting.
June 25, 2008
On Wednesday morning at 10 am (PDT), “pastors, friends and Christian leaders” from across California will join a Pastors Strategic Conference Call convened by Jim Garlow, the pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego.
As detailed on ProtectMarriageEquality.com, Garlow’s invitational letter promised that:
[T]he information shared [during the call] will be extremely beneficial for the future of the cause of Christ in California. Saying it another way, it is worth canceling all other appointments in order to be present….
The letter promises that “Christian attorneys will instruct and guide” participants on legal and public relations issues.
The letter also refers readers to a website registered to an Internet domain proxy service in Scottsdale, Arizona, located near the offices of the Alliance Defense Fund. (A Christian legal firm founded by James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and other Christian Right leaders, the ADF has played a central role in promoting antigay laws and policies.)
That website (ProtectMarriageSD.com) provides resources for opponents of marriage equality in California, including a timeline of planned events leading up to the fall election.
Titled the “Civic Serve Strategy,” the timeline begins with this week’s conference call. The next major scheduled event is a 40-day statewide fast, beginning September 25 and continuing to November 2. During the fast, a “Family Voting Weekend” will be observed on October 18-19. The focus of that weekend apparently will be a push to get absentee ballots submitted. At the end of the 40 days will come “The Call” on November 1, a 12-hour prayer rally at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. It will involve “men and women of God from every denomination — all united to create a climate of ongoing prayer and fasting in our state and across the nation.”
The California Challenge
The fact that the organizational impetus for the CaMP (California Marriage Protection) Act comes mainly from conservative Christians will come as no surprise to most observers. In California, however, anti-equality religionists face a special challenge, namely, how to convince a majority of voters — many of whom don’t subscribe to Christian Right principles — to amend their state Constitution to endorse a quintessentially religious proposition that disenfranchises an entire segment of the population.
In states where conservative Christians dominate electoral politics, winning majority votes on anti-marriage initiatives has not been a problem. But California is a more secular state than most, and the statewide politics tend to be moderate and Democratic.
Some relevant information about Californians’ religious preferences can be gleaned from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. According to the Pew survey, the population of California is less religious than the nation as a whole. For example,
- While 56% of all US adults say religion is very important in their lives, only 48% of Californians do so. And 23% of Californians say religion is not too important or not at all important, compared to 16% nationally.
- 24% of Californians said they believe their religion’s holy book (e.g., the Bible, the Torah) is to be taken literally, word for word, compared to the national average of 33%. Such beliefs are often considered a defining feature of religious fundamentalism.
These comparisons understate the differences between Californians and other Americans because the figures for the entire nation include California. However, the differences are readily apparent from the national maps on the Pew web site, which reveal that California tilts decidedly toward the less religious end of the spectrum compared to many other states, especially those in the Midwest and South.
Californians also are somewhat less likely than the nation as a whole to belong to religious denominations whose members take a negative view of homosexuality.
- More than half of the Mormons, Christian Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims in the Pew sample believed that “Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society.” These denominations comprise only about 22% of the California population, compared to about 30% nationally.
- By contrast, more than half of Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and those categorized as “other faith,” “other Christian” or “unaffiliated” believed “Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.” These groups constitute about 73% of the California population, compared to about 62% nationally.
Data from the Field Poll published last month further confirm that conservative religious beliefs are linked with opposition to marriage equality in the Golden State. The problem for CaMP Act supporters is that religious conservatives don’t come close to constituting a majority of California voters. For example, marriage equality was opposed by 68% of self-described born-again Christians, but that group comprised only one fifth of the Field Poll sample. The other four-fifths supported marriage equality by 58%.
The CaMP Strategy
All of this suggests that marriage equality opponents can’t count on passing the amendment solely with votes from conservative Christians.
To be sure, they will work hard to turn out their religious base through events such as the 40-day fast, the Family Voting Weekend, the November 1 “Call,” and ongoing massive voter registration drives through churches.
However, they will also be trying to attract moderate voters. Recognizing that most Californians support marriage equality or, at least, civil unions and domestic partnerships, they’re already tailoring their tactics, trying not to appear extreme and mean-spirited.
For example, in a June 16 letter, ProtectMarriage.com urged anti-equality activists to present a tolerant face in public:
The major media would love to see us engage in fierce protests and hostile demonstrations of outrage against the licensing of same-sex “marriages”. Of course they will take any opportunity they can find to portray us as unreasonable. We must not fall into this trap.
In a similar vein, in his letter convening the Pastors Strategic Conference Call, Jim Garlow offered this advice about dealing with media when same-sex couples began to marry last week:
If (and I repeat “if”) you are (1) called of God to do it (don’t do it if you are not called by Him), and (2) if you are inherently media savvy, and (3) if you truly know the key issues upon which to focus for a secular audience, and (4) if you will not be inflammatory in your language, but loving in both speech and demeanor, then may I recommend you to go to your respective County Clerk’s office on Monday evening or Tuesday morning — or both. Hand your card to media personnel and let them know who you are and that you are willing to make comments. For the most part, they do prefer to attempt to present “opposing views.”
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being firm, be loving. If you appear to be scared or angry or portraying “hate,” then that will be trumpeted by the anti-biblical crowd. It is imperative that we are as loving as Christ, while not flinching under pressure. My suggestion, do not go if you feel you cannot follow the four principles above.
And in Sacramento on Monday, Frank Schubert, a GOP consultant who will manage the pro-initiative campaign, said he will run a “positive, uplifting campaign”and pledged “There will not be any gay bashing in our campaign.”
CaMP Talking Points
If they avoid overt gay bashing and expressions of anger and hostility, what will they actually say? Jim Garlow’s letter offers 9 talking points, many of which will probably sound familiar. The three main points are:
- Four judges overruled the will of the people, Prop. 22 which passed by 61.4% in 2000, and was placed in the California Family Code indicating marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Key words: “usurping,” “tyranny of the judges,” “preempting the will of the people.” The judges overturned Prop. 22 on May 15. They were asked if they would put a stay on their ruling until the citizens of California could vote on the Marriage Amendment, since the necessary signatures were being validated (694,000 required; 1.1 million obtained). On June 4, the judges refused to do so, thus creating legal chaos for the state when the Marriage Amendment vote is successful. In other words, people will be married under the ruling of four judges, and those marriages will have to be reconsidered in the light of the Marriage Amendment in November. All of these are key issues that honest minded people find offensive.
- Children deserve a chance to have a father and a mother. This produces the best environment for producing healthy human beings.
- Do not use the phrase “ban same sex marriage;” that plays into the opposition’s court. Use correct phrasing: “destroying the definition of marriage that has existed in California’s 158 year history — since 1850, and the history of most of Western Civilization.”
Garlow’s letter offers 6 more points “only if you need them” and advises that this likely won’t be the case:
- Virtually every culture has affirmed the role of heterosexual marriage. There is a reason. It works.
- Two pronged approach: (a) for people who see themselves as Christians, the Bible speaks clearly on this; (b) for those who are not concerned with the Bible or Christianity, there is an awareness of “natural law,” in that males and females function together in a particular role that sustains and provides health to the human race.
- Loss of religious liberties; loss of freedom of speech, in that Canada and Sweden, for example, are now ruling that the Bible is “hate speech,” at some point, pastors will lose their right to speak out on this issue; pastors will be forced to perform homosexual weddings or face imprisonment and fines;
- Social experiments are costly and devastating to the health of humans and societies.
- If we redefine marriage, why stop with same sex? Why not polygamy? Why not incest (under age)? What is the basis for stopping with this definition of marriage? Why not further expand it?
- Do we need public school curriculum to advocate homosexual activity?
Whether or not following this plan will ultimately persuade a majority of California voters to support the anti-equality amendment remains to be seen. And, no doubt, the conservative Christians promoting the marriage ban will adjust and modify their tactics as the campaign develops in the months ahead.
At the moment, it appears that the amendment’s proponents face an uphill battle. But it would be foolish to underestimate their ability to meet this challenge in November.
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ProtectMarriageEquality.com is a resource for recent news about Marriage Equality, in California and elsewhere.
June 17, 2008
Monday evening, at 5:01 pm, California became the second state to legally recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
Some Biblical literalists may be disappointed that no natural disasters befell the state in the hours immediately following the implementation of the state Supreme Court’s May 15th decision. Indeed, in this quake-prone land where seismologists warn that the next Big One can happen at any time, the first notable earthquake that occurred after 5 pm had a relatively small magnitude — 3.1 on the Richter Scale.
Ironically, the epicenter of that quake was in Kern County, one of only two counties where the Clerk announced that, once marriage equality becomes the law, she will stop performing marriages for any couple — different-sex or same-sex. (In a few other California counties, Clerks didn’t perform marriages prior to the Court ruling and won’t begin to do so now that the law has changed.) The Kern County Clerk reportedly made her decision after consulting with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian Right legal organization that opposes gay rights.
Marriage equality opponents who are inclined to seek omens in natural occurrences may be scratching their heads about this one.
Supporting Marriage Equality versus Endorsing Discrimination
Despite the general absence of literal temblors (so far), the next five months promise plenty of figurative groundshaking as religious and political conservatives try to convince Californians to undo the Supreme Court ruling by amending the state’s constitution on November 4.
Statewide opinion polls will be a major source of information about the attitudes of California voters during that time, and many of them will focus on the percentages of Californians who endorse marriage equality versus those who don’t.
However, it’s probably inaccurate to assume that the NO votes on the proposed constitutional amendment will come solely from voters who support marriage equality. Although that bloc constitutes a reliable foundation for the NO vote, they will also be joined by other Californians who, while not ready to endorse marriage equality, aren’t willing to write discrimination into the state constitution.
Interestingly, some data relevant to this point come from two recent polls that sampled residents of New York State. Both surveys included questions about general attitudes toward marriage equality and about New York Governer David Paterson’s recent announcement that he has directed state agencies to implement a February ruling by a State Appellate Court and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed outside New York. Paterson issued the order on May 14, the day before the California marriage decision was announced. New York does not currently issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The polls — conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute from June 3-8, and the New York Times from June 6-11 — differed slightly in their findings. The Quinnipiac poll found a bit more support for marriage equality among New Yorkers than the Times poll (42% vs. 38%), and somewhat greater approval for Gov. Paterson’s order to state agencies (53% approved, compared to 48% in the Times poll). These differences are within the polls’ margins of error.
What’s interesting, however, is that both polls revealed a (roughly) 10-point gap between general support for marriage equality and support for the Governor’s order. If we assume that Gov. Paterson’s action was endorsed by all New Yorkers who support marriage equality, we still must account for another 10 percentage points in support for it. That support had to come from survey respondents who said they don’t favor marriage equality.
In other words, some members of the public don’t endorse full marriage rights for same-sex couples, but nevertheless are supportive of government actions that will effectively provide those rights.
We can see a similar pattern in the recent California Field Poll. When presented with a choice between (A) full marriage, (B) civil unions or domestic partnerships, and (C) no legal recognition for same-sex couples, 45% of Californians chose Option A, that “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry.” The interviewers subsequently asked one of two versions of a question about a ballot initiative. For both versions, majorities of respondents (51% and 54%) said they opposed changing the California Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Here again, there’s a gap — 6 or 9 points, depending on how the ballot measure was described. Thus, some Californians who don’t fully support marriage equality are nevertheless unwilling to vote to ban it.
This pattern highlights the strategic importance of distinguishing between opposition to marriage equality and support for an anti-gay ballot measure that tampers with the state constitution. We shouldn’t assume that Californians will vote for the anti-equality amendment simply because they aren’t personally ready to embrace marriages between same-sex couples.
Minding the Gap
One colleague suggested to me that the gap might reflect the fact that many adults believe legal recognition of same-sex marriages is inevitable, and thus see recent events as part of an inexorable trend, one that they don’t wish to resist. There are data to back up this idea. For example, a 2004 LA Times poll found that 59% of adults in a national sample believed that “recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable.”
In addition, the patterns are reminiscent of a consistent finding in public opinion research. Although not allowing something would appear to be equivalent to forbidding it, people are generally more reluctant to “forbid” than to “not allow.”
In 1941, on the eve of World War II, Donald Rugg published a now classic study in which survey respondents were asked their opinion about public speeches against democracy. Roughly half were asked if they believed “the United States should allow public speeches against democracy,” and the other half were asked “Do you think the United States should forbid public speeches against democracy?” While 62% said the US should not allow such speeches, only 46% said they should be forbidden. This finding has been replicated in numerous other surveys in the years since Rugg’s article appeared.
A similar dynamic seems to be operating in the domain of marriage equality. Voters are less willing to endorse banning marriage between same-sex couples than they are to support simply defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
In 2004, for example, researchers at CBS News conducted an experiment. Roughly half of 1545 poll respondents were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?” The other half were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman, and outlaw marriages between people of the same sex?” (emphasis added by me).
While 59% favored the proposed amendment when it was described simply as allowing only different-sex marriage, only 51% favored it when the language about outlawing same-sex marriage was included.
These differences aren’t huge, but they suggest that voters are less likely to forbid marriage than to simply refrain from allowing it.
Framing the CaMP Act
Thus, it is probably no accident that the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 4 ballot, labeled the “California Marriage Protection Act,” was crafted to avoid explicit references to banning marriage for same-sex couples or denying rights to gay and lesbian Californians. Instead, it is worded to say simply that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Opponents of the CaMP Act will do well to stress that voting for the amendment means Californians will be permanently banning (or forbidding or outlawing) all marriages between lesbian and gay couples.
Voters might be reluctant to take the affirmative step of enacting marriage equality through the ballot box. But, now that the Supreme Court has declared the denial of such equality unconstitutional, Californians may also be unwilling to forbid same-sex couples from marrying.
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Here are some useful readings about the “forbid/not allow” distinction:
Rugg, D. (1941). Experiments in wording questions: II. Public Opinion Quarterly, 5, 91-92.
Bishop, G. F., Hippler, H.-J., Schwarz, N., & Strack, F. (1988). A comparison of response effects in self-administered and telephone surveys. In R.M. Groves et al. (Eds.), Telephone survey methodology (pp. 321-340). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hippler, H.-J., & Schwarz, N. (1986). Not forbidding isn’t allowing: The cognitive basis of the forbid-allow asymmetry. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50, 87-96.
Narayan, S., & Krosnick, J. A. (1996). Education moderates some response effects in attitude measurement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 60, 58-88.
June 9, 2008
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?
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.
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