by Dana Rudolph
New polls on marriage equality in seven states show mostly positive results for marriage equality advocates – but polls in two of the states indicate that the way the questions are asked can significantly affect the results.
In five states – Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Washington and Hawaii – a majority of people surveyed support marriage for same-sex couples. In another state, Maryland, supporters and opponents are almost evenly divided. And in another state, North Carolina, opponents have the edge, but “the semantics (of the question) make a huge difference,” according to the polling firm.
In New Jersey, which currently allows same-sex couples to enter civil unions, 52 percent of adults surveyed said they support legalizing “gay marriage,” versus 36 percent oppose, three percent who support civil unions instead, and nine percent who say they don’t know, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Oct. 28.
But when people were asked if they support “marriage equality,” 61 percent of adults said yes, versus 25 percent opposed, two percent supporting civil unions instead, three percent unfamiliar with the term, and nine percent who did not know.
The wording change was particularly strong in certain groups. When the term “marriage equality” was used instead of “gay marriage,” support among those who never attended college climbed 25 points to 66 percent, among men it rose 16 points to 63 percent, and among Catholics it rose 14 points to 63 percent. Among people 65 and over, the change caused results to flip, from 53 percent opposed and 32 percent in favor to 33 percent opposed and 49 percent in favor.
The New Jersey Superior Court will hold a hearing Nov. 4, in Garden State Equality v. Dow, a case filed by Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal. The lawsuit contends that the state’s existing civil union law does not provide same-sex couples with full equality – an equality the state Supreme Court said, in October 2006, is guaranteed by the state constitution.
In North Carolina, language also matters. An existing state law already bans marriage of same-sex couples, but a measure will appear on the May 2012 primary ballot asking people to vote “for” or “against” a “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” Supporters of the measure say the amendment is needed so courts cannot declare the statute unconstitutional.
Among likely primary voters who were asked a question that mimicked the language of the bill, 61 percent said they would vote for it, versus 34 percent against, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling released Oct. 7. Five percent were not sure.
But in a poll by the same firm last month, 55 percent of voters were against the amendment, with only 30 percent in favor.
The difference? The phrasing of the question. Last month, the survey question asked, “State legislators have proposed an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that would prohibit the recognition of marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. If the election was held today, would you vote for or against this amendment?”
Public Policy Polling explained on its Web site, “Voters are against ‘prohibiting’ recognition for gay couples. But if you word it in such a way that all you’re doing is defining marriage as between one man and one woman, voters are ok with that.”
“The semantics make a huge difference and Republicans clearly know what they’re doing with the language that’s on the ballot.”
Maryland and Washington
Two additional states, Maryland and Washington, might also see ballot measures next year.
In Maryland, a bill to enact marriage equality failed narrowly last March, but Governor Martin O’Malley (D) has announced that he will sponsor a new bill in the 2012 legislative session. Even if the new bill does pass, however, opponents have said they will petition for a voter referendum in November 2012.
Voters in the state are almost evenly divided on the issue, according to a poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies released Oct. 4: 48 percent would favor a state law allowing same-sex couples to marry, “giving them the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples in areas such as tax exemptions, inheritance and pension coverage.” But 49 percent would oppose it. Three percent had no opinion.
And in Washington State, which currently allows same-sex couples to enter domestic partnerships that have all the state rights and responsibilities of marriage, two openly gay legislators are considering whether to introduce legislation for full marriage equality next year. If they do and the bill passes, opponents could then try to petition for a referendum.
The Washington Poll, a non-partisan survey from the University of Washington, asked voters in October how they would vote in a hypothetical referendum.
A total of 55 percent said they would vote “yes” to keep a marriage equality law, and 38 percent said they would vote against the law. Seven percent were undecided.
New Hampshire and Maine
In New Hampshire, marriage equality has been a reality for two years but is under attack. State Rep. David Bates (R-Rockingham) told the Associated Press Nov. 1 that he is dropping his effort to pass a state constitutional amendment to ban marriage for same-sex couples. He said he was doing so to make it easier for Republicans in the legislature to focus on passing a simple repeal of that law.
But he made his announcement just two weeks after a WMUR Granite State Poll released Oct. 13 indicated voters do not approve of repeal: 62 percent of adults surveyed opposed repeal, 27 percent support repeal, and 11 percent were neutral or did not know. A constitutional amendment requires approval by three-fifths of each chamber and approval by two-thirds of the voters.
The issue in New Hampshire could have broader political implications, too. New Hampshire hosts the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential primary in January. And the survey showed 44 percent are more likely to vote against a candidate who favors repeal of the existing law, while only 14 percent say they will be less likely to support a candidate who opposes it.
And in Maine, where voters overturned a marriage equality law in 2009, 51 percent of voters said it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry and 42 said it should remain illegal (17 percent were not sure). That represents a 15-point reversal from 2009, according to Public Policy Polling results released Nov. 2.
If voters cast ballots today in a proposed referendum to re-legalize marriage for same-sex couples, it would pass by a ratio of 48-35.
Across the country in Hawaii, which passed a civil union law earlier this year, 49 percent of voters want same-sex couples to be able to marry, compared to 40 percent who don’t, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released October 21.
National survey results released September 28 by NORC (formerly the National Opinion Research Center), a social science research center at the University of Chicago, found that, across the country, supporters of marriage equality now outnumber opponents, 46 percent to 40 percent.
The results are based on the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), the most widely used source of information about social trends, with the exception of the U.S. Census.