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June 12, 2008

Norway, Marriage & Military Service: NATO vs. the USA

Posted at 4:33 pm (Pacific Time)

On Wednesday, Norway’s Parliament voted 84-41 to make that country’s marriage law gender-neutral, thereby granting same-sex couples the right to marry and to adopt children on an equal basis with heterosexual couples. The new law will also allow the Church of Norway to bless same-sex marriages, although each congregation may be permitted to decide for itself whether to conduct weddings for gay and lesbian couples.

Norway thus becomes the world’s sixth nation to grant marriage equality to same-sex couples, joining the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa.

With the exception of South Africa, all of those countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Norwegian Parliament’s vote is the most recent sign of the widening gap between the United States and its NATO allies on national policies concerning human rights for sexual minorities, exemplified by laws concerning committed relationships and military service.

In addition to the 5 countries with marriage equality, 9 other NATO member countries allow same-sex couples to register their partnerships and thereby enjoy many of the same rights and obligations as married couples — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, and Luxembourg. And Portugal recognizes unregistered cohabitation, which gives same-sex couples some of the limited rights (excluding joint adoption) enjoyed by different-sex couples living in a de facto union for more than two years.

Most of the NATO members that recognize marriage or same-sex registered partnerships also permit military service by gay people. In addition, some NATO countries that don’t recognize same-sex relationships nevertheless permit gay personnel to serve in their military. Estonia, Italy, and Lithuania are in this group.

[Note: Greece bans gay officers but permits gay enlisted conscripts, and Portugal has no formal ban on gay personnel but may screen out homosexuals during the induction process. As Profs. Aaron Belkin and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert point out in a recent review of international military policies, “Because of the range of policies, it is, indeed, a complex task to track the status of regulations and customs concerning gays and lesbians in the armed forces around the world.” Thus, “it is incredibly labor intensive to determine with great accuracy what a country permits or prohibits by law and what really happens on a day-to-day basis. Not only do laws change, but the application of the law may vary from one location to another.”]

Some NATO countries neither recognize same-sex relationships nor permit military service by sexual minorities. They include Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

And, of course, the United States.

Our federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) expressly prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal marriages or civil unions between same-sex couples. And our military policy (known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or DADT), while ostensibly allowing gay and lesbian personnel to serve in secrecy, has resulted in widespread antigay harassment and discharge of sexual minorities. This has continued even as the military has lowered its standards in order to meet enlistment goals — for example, by granting “moral waivers” to convicted felons and recruiting individuals lacking a high school diploma.

Social science research has failed to support the premises on which DADT is based, and opinion polls generally indicate that the US public favors allowing sexual minority military personnel to serve openly. Even onetime supporters of DADT have recognized that it hasn’t worked. Former Senator Sam Nunn and the late Charles Moskos both expressed second thoughts about the policy’s implementation. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when DADT was adopted, now argues for its repeal.

And, while a majority of the US public still opposes marriage equality, most American adults favor some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Yet, Congress has shown little willingness to change current laws. In an Associated Press story today, Anne Flaherty reported that congressional Democrats have been reluctant to push a legislative repeal of the DADT law, citing resistance from their more conservative members and the inevitability of a veto by President Bush. There are no immediate prospects for Congress to repeal DOMA.

All of this might change if Barack Obama is elected and the Democrats gain a significant number of new congressional seats in November. Whereas presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has endorsed DADT, Sen. Obama has called for its repeal. Nevertheless, Sen. Obama hasn’t made DADT a major talking point in his campaign, probably because he wants to avoid repeating President Bill Clinton’s missteps in 1993 when DADT was enacted into law. (Prior to that time, the military’s ban on service by gay personnel was a matter of Executive Branch policy, not federal law.) Sen. Obama has also expressed support for limited recognition of same-sex couples and the repeal of DOMA, although he opposes marriage equality. Sen. McCain opposes marriage equality and, apparently, civil unions and similar legal recognition for same-sex couples.

For now, the gay citizens of Norway — including those in the military — can look forward to marrying. Meanwhile, in the US, marriage equality exists in only two states, with its status in California threatened by a major ballot initiative. And the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has had to warn active-duty military personnel that marrying someone of the same sex in California or Massachusetts means risking their military careers, noting that the federal statute enacting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell clearly states “A member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces” if “the member has married or attempted to marry a person known to be of the same biological sex.”

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


June 11, 2008

The Lawrence King Murder: Arraignment on Thursday

Posted at 2:35 pm (Pacific Time)

Last February 12, Lawrence King, a 15-year old 8th grader, was murdered at his middle school in Oxnard.

He was in the school’s computer lab when 14-year old Brandon McInerney walked in and shot him at least twice in the head. King was unconscious when he was brought to the hospital and was declared brain dead the next day. He was taken off life support on February 14.

King had publicly come out as gay in the weeks before his murder, and he frequently violated gender roles by wearing make-up and jewelry to school. He was regularly teased by a group of male students that included McInerney. By some accounts, King teased and flirted with McInerney and some of his other tormentors.

McInerney is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Ventura County on a charge of premeditated murder. The charge includes a penalty enhancement because the murder has been classified as a hate crime.

Among the issues likely to be raised in McInerney’s arraignment and trial are:

  • Whether he should be tried as a juvenile or, as Ventura County prosecutors intend, as an adult. He turned 14 — the minimum age at which a juvenile in California can be tried as an adult — on January 24, just weeks before the murder. In April, a coalition of 27 sexual minority and transgender rights groups urged that McInerney be tried in juvenile court.
  • Whether the Court will consider neuroscience data suggesting that adolescents engage in impulsive behavior because their brains have not completely matured. According to the Ventura County Star, McInerney’s defense attorney hopes to use such research to argue that he should be tried as a juvenile.
  • Whether school officials are partially to blame for not having dealt more proactively with the tensions between the two boys. This argument will almost certainly include assertions that Lawrence King should have been deterred from violating gender norms and being openly gay. This, in turn, is likely to spark discussion about the rights of sexual minority and gender-nonconforming youth to be safe in their schools.

It seems less likely that the trial will address broader questions about sexual stigma, which creates a cultural climate in which children, adolescents, and adults are routinely subjected to harassment and bullying if they violate conventions of gender and sexuality. That climate affects everyone, regardless of their own sexual orientation, because anyone can potentially be perceived as nonheterosexual. The wish to avoid being labeled as gay can lead individuals to enact sexual stigma against others through ostracism, ridicule, discrimination, and even violence.

Dr. Karen Franklin, one of the few researchers to have published original data on antigay behaviors and the perpetrators of antigay crimes, has posted an excellent discussion of these and other aspects of the case on her forensic psychology blog.

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


June 10, 2008

Love, Marriage & Macy’s

Posted at 1:25 pm (Pacific Time)

The full-page Macy’s ad in the May 28th San Francisco Chronicle is evidence that the debate about marriage equality in California during the next 5 months won’t be limited to the domains of civil rights and religious doctrine. It will also be about economics.

The ad was dominated by a grayscale photo of two wedding bands, followed by a red headline. Something like this:

Wedding Rings

First comes love.
Then comes marriage.

Just another ad for a wedding registry, right? But then came the copy. It began:

And now it’s a milestone every couple in California can celebrate.
Let Macy’s Wedding Gift & Registry help you start your new life together.

* * * * *

Macy’s shrewd decision to celebrate the May 15th Supreme Court ruling reflects their judgment that marriage equality in California will mean a lot of new business. And they’re not alone. According to various news reports, wedding planners, caterers, florists, DJs, and hoteliers, just to mention a few, are anticipating a sudden influx of customers as same-sex couples plan what many never dreamed they’d have — a legal wedding.

It’s not only retailers and entrepreneurs who anticipate a windfall. The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau web site now features a welcome letter from CEO Joe D’Alessandro, stating that the Bureau “wants to be among the first to wish all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples the warmest of congratulations on securing marriage rights in this hard-fought battle.” It goes on to promote San Francisco as the place to marry:

We hope you will think of San Francisco as the ideal spot to plan your perfect wedding and/or honeymoon…. [W]e want to encourage everyone to “Come Out Here” and visit the first city in the United States to perform same-sex marriages and the only state where everyone, including visitors, has the constitutional right to marry.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who twice vetoed marriage equality bills passed by the legislature, saying it was up to the California courts to decide whether the freedom to marry is a constitutional right, now sees dollar signs in the future. Speaking at a May 20 Environmental Defense Fund event in San Francisco, Schwarzenegger responded to a question about the California Supreme Court’s marriage decision by quipping, “You know, I’m wishing everyone good luck with their marriages and I hope that California’s economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married.”

Calculating California’s Windfall

Just how much money will weddings between same-sex partners bring to California? A new report, The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget, offers some informed estimates. Authored by Profs. Brad Sears and Lee Badgett from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA’s School of Law, the report projects the economic fallout of marriage equality in California over the next 3 years.

The report considers likely spending both by California couples and by non-California couples who come to the Golden State to wed. (There will probably be many such couples because, unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for marrying.)

Using data on civil unions in Vermont, marriages in Massachusetts, and domestic partnerships in California, the Williams Institute researchers estimate that roughly half of California’s same-sex couples will marry in the next 3 years. Based on Census data estimates, this translates into about 51,000 couples. The average wedding expenditure for heterosexual couples in California during the next 3 years will be about $30,500. If same-sex couples each spend one fourth of this amount (about $7,600), the total will be about $392 million, plus another $31.4 million in sales taxes.

In addition to California residents, the researchers project that about 67,500 couples from other states will travel to California to marry. This estimate includes about one fourth of the same-sex couples currently living in New York and New Mexico, states where a California marriage will be recognized. It also includes one fourth of the same-sex couples living in the states that currently are the main sources of tourism for California — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.

The average tourist visiting California stays 4 days and spends $163 per day. If, in addition to these routine expenses, non-resident couples (and their friends and family) spend an additional $3,000 in the state on wedding expenses (special accommodations, meals, clothing, flowers, gifts, etc.), the average will be about $4,300 per couple, or a total of $291 million over the next 3 years. Sales and hotel taxes will add another $23.7 million to state and local government revenues.

Add in another $8.8 million in marriage license fees to county governments, and the Williams Institute researchers conclude:

[W]e estimate that allowing same-sex couples to wed in California could result in approximately $683.6 million in additional spending on weddings and tourism in the State over the next three years, creating approximately 2,178 new jobs and resulting in additional state and local tax revenues of $63.8 million.

Granted, given the size of California’s economy, these are modest amounts. But in the midst of a downturn that many believe is a recession, even a relatively small economic stimulus is welcome news.

Of course, California’s voters may decide in November to amend the state constitution so as to eliminate marriage equality. But the Williams Institute report makes it clear that passing the ballot proposition will not only deny many Californians their right to marry the person they love. It also will effectively kill the goose that will be laying golden eggs for the state’s economy.

* * * * *

The report by Profs. Sears and Badgett is titled The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget and is available from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy website.

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


June 9, 2008

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

Posted at 9:48 am (Pacific Time)

From the June 3 USA Today:

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

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

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

Probably not.

The Results in Context

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

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

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

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

Reconsidering the USA Today Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 4, 2008

California Court: Weddings Can Begin on June 17

Posted at 1:57 pm (Pacific Time)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 3, 2008

Charles Moskos, DADT Architect, Dies

Posted at 3:36 pm (Pacific Time)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 29, 2008

The Field Poll: Hopeful News For Marriage Equality Supporters

Posted at 11:12 am (Pacific Time)

A single photograph provides a static view of its subject. But when we connect a series of images together and shuffle through them, as with a flip-book or the frames of a movie, what we see corresponds more closely to the real world.

The same is true of opinion polls. One poll gives us a snapshot of the public at a particular moment in time. Having two, three, or more polls on the same topic reveals the range of public opinion, its consistencies and its volatilities.

Thus, Wednesday’s new California Field Poll on marriage equality attitudes — the second poll to be publicly released on this topic since the state Supreme Court’s May 15 marriage decision — expands our knowledge about Californians’ reactions to the ruling and their views about overturning it in November.

For supporters of marriage equality, the news is good. The Field Poll results may mean that last week’s LA Times poll — which itself provided hopeful signs for the November election — actually painted too pessimistic a picture.

Field Poll Findings

The new poll included two questions about general attitudes toward marriage equality. First, repeating a question that has been included in the Field Poll since 1977, respondents were asked:

“Do you approve or disapprove of California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them?”

  • 51% Approved
  • 42% Disapproved
  • 7% had no opinion

This marks the first time ever that a majority of Field Poll respondents has supported marriage equality. In a 2006 survey, by comparison, 44% approved while 50% disapproved.

The poll also included a question — similar to the one asked in last week’s LA Times poll — to which respondents indicated which of three different statements about legal recognition of same-sex relationships most closely resembles their own view:

  • 45% selected “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry”
  • 32% selected “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not legally marry”
  • 19% selected “there should be no legal recognition of a gay or lesbian couple’s relationship”
  • 4% had no opinion.

Regarding the pending state ballot initiative, the poll randomly divided the sample and asked each group of respondents a slightly different version of the question.

VERSION A: “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?”

  • 40% Favor
  • 54% Oppose
  • 6% DK

VERSION B: “There may be a vote on this issue in the November election. Would you favor or oppose having the State Constitution prohibit same-sex marriage, by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman?”

  • 43% Favor
  • 51% Oppose
  • 6% DK

The Margin of Error

When considering the results of this (or any) poll, it’s important to keep in mind that the percentages reported above are estimates of how many people in the entire population hold these opinions. Although the specific percentage is the best guess that can be derived from the data, the poll actually provides a range of percentages within which the correct value for the population probably lies. This range is described by the poll’s margin of error.

For most of the Field Poll marriage questions, the margin of error is about 3 percentage points. Thus, what the poll really tells us is that there’s a high likelihood that somewhere between 48% and 54% of California voters currently approve of marriage equality, while somewhere between 39% and 45% disapprove.

For the two versions of the question about amending the California constitution, the margin of error is slightly larger (because each question was asked of only a portion of the sample). Between 50% and 58% of voters oppose the ballot measure as it was described in Version A, while 36% – 44% favor it. And between 47% and 55% oppose the B Version, while 38% – 48% favor Version B.

Note that the ranges of those favoring and opposing Version B overlap. This is what’s meant by a virtual tie or a statistical dead heat.

The results for both versions indicate that the anti-marriage initiative may be in trouble before it even qualifies for the ballot. To quote from a previous post:

The LA Times article noted that “ballot 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.”

Comparing Polls

To get a better sense of the California electorate’s current views, it’s useful to compare the Field Poll results with last week’s Los Angeles Times survey on the same topic.

Both polls found that attitudes toward marriage equality and toward the ballot initiative differed substantially according to age, party affiliation, political ideology, and geographic region. Younger respondents, Democrats, liberals, and residents of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area were more likely to support marriage equality, while older respondents, Republicans, conservatives, and residents of the Central Valley and other rural areas tended to oppose it. In both polls, the attitudes of moderates and independents were closer to those of Democrats and liberals than to those of Republicans and conservatives.

The polls differed, however, in their findings about gender. The Field Poll didn’t report men’s and women’s attitudes toward the ballot measure separately, suggesting that they didn’t differ. But in the Times poll, likely women voters overwhelmingly said they would support the initiative — 62% to 29%. (Men were evenly split — 44% to 44%.) As I explained in another post, this pattern puzzles me. Past research on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities and policies affecting them has revealed a fairly consistent gender gap, with heterosexual women less prejudiced and more supportive of gay civil rights than heterosexual men. And previous polling in California has found that marriage equality receives more support from women than men.

In addition to the gender difference, the polls differed in many of their key numbers, even when we take their respective margins of error into account. In the LA Times poll, between 32% and 38% favored marriage equality (compared to 42% – 48% in the Field poll) and 26% – 32% opposed all legal recognition of same-sex couples (compared to 16% – 22% in the Field Poll). And the Times estimate of voters who would support the November ballot initiative is between 50% and 58% — nowhere near the ranges for the Field Poll’s Version A (36% – 44% favored it) or Version B (38% – 48% favored it).

Such differences can be caused by a variety of factors. For example, data collection for the Field poll spanned a considerably longer period – 10 days, compared to 2 days for the Times poll. This may mean that its sample was ultimately more representative because having more time means more opportunities to reach sample members who initially weren’t at home.

The wording of poll questions can also affect response patterns, especially among those who don’t hold strong opinions or haven’t thought about the issue extensively. In this regard, perhaps some differences resulted from the fact that the Field Poll asked about general attitudes toward amending the California constitution, while the LA Times poll asked about respondents’ actual intention to vote for or against the measure.

What Does It Mean?

As new data become available, we’ll get a better sense of whether the LA Times or the Field Poll better describes the California electorate. It will be especially interesting to see new results from polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, which has tracked Californians’ attitudes on this issue throughout the decade and found increasing support for marriage equality. In their 2007 survey, the PPIC found that likely voters were evenly divided, with 46% supporting marriage equality and 48% opposing it.

For now, the results from the two available polls suggest the November ballot initiative is currently in trouble — capturing only a slight majority (LA Times), losing outright (Field Poll Version A), or being too close to call (Field Poll Version B).

This doesn’t mean supporters of marriage equality should be complacent. Elections are decided by actual ballots, not survey responses, and backers of the initiative will be working hard to get out the vote among those most likely to endorse the amendment in November.

Indeed, as an antidote to overconfidence, it’s instructive to consider the Field Poll’s batting average in predicting the outcomes of California ballot initiative contests. In 2000, Field correctly predicted that Proposition 22 (the antigay Knight Initiative) would pass. However, it seriously underestimated the extent of support for that initiative. The last Field Poll before election day found that 53% of voters supported Prop 22, but it ultimately passed with 61% of the vote.

Needless to say, a similar undercount could be occurring in this year’s polling.

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


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