PUBLIC OPINION ON GAY MARRIAGE
(Essay for Professor John Sides' Public Opinion course)
With regards to the dramatic spike in support for gay marriage over the course of the last several years, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. In the Gallup poll, 27% of respondents agreed that “marriages between same-sex couples should be valid” in March 1996. By May 2014, a decade later, 55% of respondents expressed support for this statement – an 11-point increase in just four years. According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of respondents in 2009 supported same-sex marriage legalization but just five years later, 54% of respondents said they favored it. In the ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll, 49% of respondents agreed in April 2009 that it should be “legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.” By spring 2013, 58% of respondents agreed with this statement. In a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59% of respondents supported gay marriage rights – 10 points higher than in October 2009. In a June 2013 CBS/New York Times poll, 51% of respondents agreed same-sex marriage should be legal whereas just 13 months beforehand, only 42% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization.
The increased support for same-sex marriage rights cuts across virtually all demographics. Comparisons of 2004 and 2013-14 polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Pew Research Center, and Gallup support this finding. In a 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57% of 18-29-year olds, 33% of 30-64-year olds, and 18% of respondents 65 and older supported gay marriage legalization. In spring 2013, 81%, 56%, and 44% of respondents in these age cohorts, respectively, supported it. The same poll showed that Republican, Democratic, and Independent support for gay marriage rose by 18%, 29%, and 24% respectively in this time span. Support among both men and women rose by roughly 25%, by 23% among whites but 33% among nonwhites, by double digits among liberals and conservatives and moderates, and, strikingly, by 19% among Catholics and 25% among white Protestants.
Pew polling found support for same-sex marriage legalization rose markedly among other groups too in the same period. Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, support for gay marriage rights increased from 61% in 2004 to 74% in 2013. Among black Protestants, support rose from 19% in 2004 to 32% in 2013. In 2014, Gallup found support for gay marriage legalization at 67% in the East, 58% in the West, 53% in the Midwest, and 48% in the South – all drastically higher than in 2004.
This rise in public support for gay marriage must be understood in tandem with the history of public attitudes towards gays and homosexuality generally. It is public tolerance of homosexuals that is strongly linked to support for gay marriage rights. Acceptance of gays and support for same-sex marriages do not identically mirror each other but there is a clear link. As public acceptance of homosexuality improved, so too did public backing of gay marriage. The trend lines have been most notably reflected in Gallup data. Gallup noted how the continual increase, from 2004 to 2014, in public tolerance with gay and lesbian relations “mirror[ed] the growth in public support for legalizing gay marriage.” In 2004, 42% of Gallup respondents believed gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” whereas the same exact percentage of respondents believed same-sex marriages “should be valid.” In 2011, 56% of Gallup respondents agreed that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable while 53% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization. This trend of tolerance and support for marriage equality increasing simultaneously is also seen in the General Social Survey (GSS). 54% of GSS respondents said gay relations were “always wrong” in 2000 whereas 44% said so in 2010. In 2000, 30% of GSS respondents supported gay marriage but by 2010, 46% backed it.
To understand how these changes came about is to understand what factors allowed for this greater tolerance of gays, which, in turn, led to greater support for gay marriage. The single most important influence in this regard was more Americans continually getting to know relatives, friends, and colleagues who were gay and who came out as gay. As a 2007 Pew analysis said, “familiarity is closely linked to tolerance,” a finding reflected in poll results that showed respondents with gay friends and relatives were more likely to favor nondiscrimination against gays and, by a 55%-25% margin, more likely to favor gay marriage (Pew Research Center/Neidorf and Morin, “Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who are Gay”). Public opinion polling demonstrates that as Americans are increasingly exposed to gay and lesbian individuals, they grow increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. In 2010, 77% of CBS News poll respondents said they “kn[ew] someone who is gay or lesbian” but in 1992, just 42% of respondents said so. 38% of respondents in a 1992 CBS News poll said homosexuality was an “acceptable alternative lifestyle” but by 2009, 54% said there was nothing wrong with gay relationships. Consequently, CBS News determined the polling showed that “knowing someone who is gay or lesbian” was a strong determinant of acceptance of homosexuality (CBS News/Montopoli, “Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval for Gays”).
Further, the phenomenon of how knowing gay relatives and friends fuels higher support for gay marriage is supported by a vast array of polling evidence and professional analysis. In the Pew poll, 61% of Americans said in 1993 that they knew someone who is gay or lesbian but 87% said in 2013 that they did. That same year, a Pew poll noted “roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who knew a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.” Forcing the Spring author Jo Becker’s research reaffirmed that “the number one reason why [gay marriage support has increased] is that more…people have come out” (Basu, The Atlantic, “Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever”). Indeed, a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 77% of Americans said they personally knew a gay person – up 15% from 2004 – and among this group, 65% supported gay marriage rights. Studies dissected by Michael Klarman in his book, From the Closet to the Alter, made the case that the correlation between knowing gays and supporting gay marriage was strong enough to support causation. Citing public opinion polls that showed that, as more Americans came to know people who were gay, public support for gay marriage climbed, Klarman argued, “one of the factors that most strongly predicts support for gay equality is knowing someone who is openly gay” (Klarman, Los Angeles Times, “Why gay marriage is inevitable”). A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey showed respondents who knew an LGBT individual were more likely to “favor gay marriage” by a 63%-36% margin. The PRRI found that while in 1993, 22% of respondents said they had a “close friend or family member” who identified as gay or lesbian, 65% of respondents said so in 2013. In that time, support for gay marriage rights in the PRRI poll grew from 32% in 2004 to 53% in 2014. Notably, in a 2013 Pew poll, respondents were asked why they changed their minds to support gay marriage and the most popular response, provided by 32% of respondents, was that they “know someone…who is homosexual.”
Pop culture also appears to have played a role in rising support for gay marriage. When Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in a 2012 Meet the Press interview, he referenced the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. The show, which depicted gay characters, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything,” Biden said (Barbaro, The New York Times, “A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage”). The evidence backs up the Vice President’s statement. Several University of Minnesota professors’ studies demonstrated that Will and Grace, and other TV shows with gay characters like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, made Americans more tolerable of gay relationships and contributed to “lower levels of prejudice” against gays (Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes, Comparative Media Studies, “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis”). A similar effect is visible with ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family, a popular series that portrays a gay couple. 27% of respondents in a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll said the show made them “more pro-gay marriage” whereas 2% said it made them “more anti-same-sex marriage.” Public opinion researcher Paul Brewer noted the importance of pop culture was that it challenged stigmas associated with gays so that gays were seen as “individual people rather than as an undifferentiated mass,” per Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley (Clawson and Oxley, 179). In a 2008 Harris poll, 32% of respondents claimed the depiction of gays and lesbians in TV shows and films “helped change their views,” including towards support for gay marriage.
The decreasing role that religion plays in public life, as well as the decline in the importance of moral traditionalism in politics, helped bring about a change in views too. Americans who regularly attend church, identify as Evangelical Christians, and say that moral values are significant in their voting decisions consistently oppose gay marriage (National Journal/Ronald Brownstein, “Preaching to the Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties”). Pew found that “religious beliefs are a major factor” in opposition to gay marriage (Pew, “In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as ‘Inevitable’). However, the number of Americans who identify with these traits has declined in the last decade (The New York Times/Dickerson, “The Decline of Evangelical America”). As such, the political factor of moral traditionalism that Clawson and Oxley discussed has faded in its effect in shaping public opinion on gay marriage.
This linkage of religion with views on gay marriage, and how the declining impact of religion in shaping these views is helping buttress support for gay marriage, is seen in polls. For one, confidence in organized religion, led by anti-gay marriage leaders like the Pope and populated by scores of preachers who routinely advocate against gay marriage, has declined in the Gallup poll. Whereas in 1996, 57% of respondents said they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion, 45% said so in 2014. In that time, support for same-sex marriage in Gallup skyrocketed. Second, it is clear churchgoing Americans are more inclined to oppose gay marriage while Americans who rarely or never attend church are more inclined to support it, per Gallup, among other sources. Indeed, according to Gallup, “a simple indicator of religiosity – regular service attendance – is a powerful predictor of views on same-sex marriage” (Gallup/Newport, “Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage”). As church attendance has declined though, support for gay marriage has climbed (Pew/Lipka, “What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home”).
Beyond that, Paul Brewer found that the role of moral traditionalism – defined by Clawson and Oxley as “belief that traditional family and societal organization is best” – in public opinion weakened considerably between 1992 and 2000 and this change contributed to stronger support for gay rights (Clawson and Oxley, 178 and 421). Further, in the same month (May 2010) that Gallup found a record high 16% of respondents identifying with no religion, they also found for the first time that a majority of respondents believed gay relations were “morally acceptable.” A 2012 Gallup poll puts these two separate findings into a different context as it showed that 88% of the subset of Americans who do not identify with a religion supported same-sex marriage legalization – a higher level of support than virtually any other group. As this group rises in number, and as it is clear that this group is overwhelmingly supportive of gay marriage rights, this trajectory bodes well for gay marriage proponents.
Vitally, an April 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll made a convincing case that a decline in the importance of morals and religion in politics in public opinion influenced views on gays. The poll showed that 43% of respondents said a “decline in moral values” was a source of “serious problems” in the U.S. – a sizable decline from the 51% who said so in 1993. As NBC News political analyst John Harwood explained, “the shift helps explain…the rising acceptance of gay marriage” (CNBC/Harwood, “US Problems About More Than ‘Moral Values’: NBC/WSJ Poll). Further, a 2014 PRRI survey lent credence to the notion that disenchantment with religion, especially among young Americans, is helping increase support for gay marriage. The poll found 31% of Millennials who “left their childhood religion” said “negative teachings about” homosexuality was an “important factor” in their decision. Consequently, this group’s support for gay marriage rights has only hardened in intensity.
In terms of the implications of public opinion on gay marriage for political leaders and public policy, there are several important elements that bode well for gays. For one, a March 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that 34% of respondents would prefer a pro-gay marriage presidential candidate whereas 26% said they would prefer a candidate opposed to gay marriage. This finding suggests future presidential candidates who oppose gay marriage will be more reluctant to emphasize their opposition at risk of alienating voters. Such behavior would be consistent with the very recent history of political elites largely following the public on this issue. Politicians are mostly receiving their cues on this issue from voters – a trend that is likely to continue. When only 40% of Americans supported same-sex marriage in the Gallup poll in 2008, President Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage despite his support for other LGBT-friendly policies. In May 2012, during a week in which Gallup showed 50% of Americans supported gay marriage legalization, Obama personally endorsed it too. Obama’s own former political strategist David Axelrod admitted that public opinion was a crucial factor in the timing of Obama’s announcement (CNN/Alexandra Jaffe, “Axelrod explains Obama on gay marriage: ‘Leaders work this way’).
The executive branch is not the only segment of the federal government in which elites are now following the public. A wide array of legal and political analysts widely expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a federal constitutional right to marriage for gays nationwide this summer. One core reason why the Court is poised to make this ruling is public opinion. Although the Court ostensibly remains above the political fray, there is significant evidence that public opinion plays a crucial role in influencing the scope and effect of Court decisions. Cognizant of the varying potential reactions to their (often) controversial rulings, justices are keen to the changes in public mood on the issues they adjudicate. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner said on this issue, “same-sex marriage is advancing…[and] that’s what the relevant majorities of the justices care about” (Washington Monthly/Voeten, “How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion”).
In terms of the implications for the major political parties, Democratic politicians will likely be in a position in which their base voters – primarily self-identified liberal Democrats – will expect them to support gay marriage. A 2012 Pew poll showed an overwhelming 83% of liberal Democrats support gay marriage. “The strongest gay marriage supporters,” The Huffington Post wrote last March, “are mostly self-described liberal Democrats” (The Huffington Post/Edwards-Levy, “Americans Would Rather Vote for a President Who Supports Gay Marriage”). Given this intensity of support, and given the fact that more Americans strongly support gay marriage than strongly oppose it, it is unsurprising that numerous Democratic members of Congress came out in support of gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 after applied public pressure (Politico/Robillard, “Poll: 58 percent back gay marriage”). With regards to Republican politicians, their own base of senior citizens, Evangelicals, and self-described conservatives, among other voters, remain mostly opposed to gay marriage (The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). However, the broader public support for gay marriage might compel some Republican politicians, especially those who represent battleground or Democratic districts and states, to endorse gay marriage. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), for instance, has already backed same-sex marriage, likely in anticipation of a difficult 2016 reelection bid in his heavily Democratic state (The Christian Science Monitor/Guarino, “Republican Sen. Mark Kirk backs gay marriage: How big a deal?”).
One key factor though in determining the influence of public opinion on policy here is the salience of the issue. On the whole, a 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed merely 8% of voters identified gay marriage as “one of the most important” issues in impacting their vote. Considering this finding, it is likely that elites will avoid making gay marriage support or opposition a central priority of theirs in their political agenda, rhetoric, and actions. In fact, the low salience of the issue might explain why neither President Obama nor Governor Romney mentioned gay marriage in any of the 2012 presidential debates (NPR/Greenblatt, “During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Defeaning”). Ultimately though, the rising support for gay marriage does not necessarily mean public opinion challenges don’t remain for gays.
In additional to all of this evidence, between 2008 and 2010 in Gallup, a notable 8% of respondents expressed support for validating gay marriages but did not believe that gay relations were morally acceptable. Further evidence of a similar discrepancy is observed in Pew polling which showed “it may be easier for a respondent to say legalize gay marriage than to say I favor legalizing it.” Pew found that polls that asked generally about legalization elicited higher support than those that asked about whether respondents personally supported gay marriage (Pew/Kohut, “Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?”) They pointed to a 2013 Quinnipiac poll in which only 47% of Americans favored same-sex marriage when respondents were asked simply if they “supported or opposed gay marriage.” Regardless, the broader truth remains the same: support for gay marriage has risen recently, among all groups, even regardless of question wording.
1. Clawson, Rosalee A., and Zoe M. Oxley. 2013. Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, Seond Edition. Washington: CQ Press. Pages 178-180 and 291-295.
2. Kohut, Andrew. "Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?" Pew Research Center. March 29, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2013/03/29/yes-more-americans-favor-legalizing-gay-marriage-but-just-how-many-do/.
3. Montopoli, Brian. "Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval For Gays." CBS News. June 9, 2010. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-with-higher-visibility-less-disapproval-for-gays/.
4. Neidorf, Shawn, and Rich Morin. "Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who Are Gay." Pew Research Center. May 22, 2007. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/05/22/fourinten-americans-have-close-friends-or-relatives-who-are-gay/.
5. Harwood, John. "US Problems About More Than 'Moral Values': Poll." CNBC. April 12, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/id/100635460.
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7. "In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as 'Inevitable'" Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. June 6, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.people-press.org/2013/06/06/in-gay-marriage-debate-both-supporters-and-opponents-see-legal-recognition-as-inevitable/.
8. Brownstein, Ronald. "Preaching to The Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties." National Journal. April 6, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-america/newsdesk/gay-marriage-democrats-gop-divide-20150406.
9. Dickerson, John. "The Decline of Evangelical America." The New York Times. December 15, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/the-decline-of-evangelical-america.html.
10. Lipka, Michael. "What Surveys Say about Worship Attendance – and Why Some Stay Home." Pew Research Center. September 13, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/13/what-surveys-say-about-worship-attendance-and-why-some-stay-home/.
11. Greenblatt, Alan. "During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Deafening." NPR. October 23, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/10/23/163488809/during-debates-silence-on-some-issues-was-deafening.
12. Guarino, Mike. "Republican Sen. Mark Kirk Backs Gay Marriage: How Big a Deal?" The Christian Science Monitor. April 2, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2013/0402/Republican-Sen.-Mark-Kirk-backs-gay-marriage-How-big-a-deal.
13. Robillard, Kevin. "Poll: 58 Percent Back Gay Marriage." POLITICO. March 1, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/poll-58-percent-back-gay-marriage-89025.html.
14. Voeten, Erik. "How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion." The Washington Monthly. June 28, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2013/06/how_the_supreme_court_responds045541.php.
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16. Basu, Tanya. "Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever." The Atlantic. March 3, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/why-more-americans-accept-gay-marriage-than-ever/386707/.
17. Klarman, Michael. "Why Gay Marriage Is Inevitable." Los Angeles Times. February 12, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/12/opinion/la-oe-klarman-gay-marriage-and-the-courts-20120212.
18. "Survey | A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues." Public Religion Research Institute. February 1, 2014. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/02/2014-lgbt-survey/#.VSaJPTTF9p8.
19. Barbaro, Michael. "A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage." The New York Times. May 6, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/us/politics/biden-expresses-support-for-same-sex-marriages.html?_r=0.
20. Schiappa, Edward, Gregg, Peter, and Hewes, Dean. “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis.” Communication Monographs. March 1, 2005. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://cmsw.mit.edu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/The-Parasocial-Contact-Hypothesis.pdf.
21. Jaffe, Alexandra. "Axelrod on Obama: 'Leaders Work This Way' - CNN.com." CNN. February 11, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/11/politics/obama-david-axelrod-interview/.
22. The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com