Polls on gay marriage not yet reflected in votes

Associated Press Modified: May 28, 2012 at 2:46 am •  Published: May 28, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — Poll after poll shows public support for same-sex marriage steadily increasing, to the point where it's now a majority viewpoint. Yet in all 32 states where gay marriage has been on the ballot, voters have rejected it.

It's possible the streak could end in November, when Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state are likely to have closely contested gay marriage measures on their ballots.

For now, however, there remains a gap between the national polling results and the way states have voted. It's a paradox with multiple explanations, from political geography to the likelihood that some conflicted voters tell pollsters one thing and then vote differently.

"It's not that people are lying. It's an intensely emotional issue," said Amy Simon, a pollster based in Oakland, Calif. "People can report to you how they feel at the moment they're answering the polls, but they can change their mind."

California experienced that phenomenon in November 2008, when voters, by a 52-48 margin, approved a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. A statewide Field Poll that September indicated Proposition 8 would lose decisively; an updated poll a week before the vote still showed it trailing by 5 percentage points.

California is an unusual case. It's one of a few reliably Democratic states that have had a statewide vote rebuffing same-sex marriage. The vast majority of the referendums have been in more conservative states, which have a greater predilection for using ballot measures to set social policy. The 32 states that have rejected gay marriage at the polls make up just over 60 percent of the U.S. population.

Voters in liberal states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, where gay marriage was legalized by judges or legislators, might vote to affirm those decisions but haven't had the opportunity.

Most of the states that voted against gay marriage did so between 2004 and 2008. Since then, only Maine in 2009 and North Carolina on May 8 have rebuffed same-sex marriage in referendums, while legislatures in Washington state, Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Illinois and Delaware have voted for same-sex marriage or civil unions.

In all, there are now six states with legal same-sex marriage and nine more granting gay and lesbian couples broad marriage-style rights via civil unions or domestic partnerships. Together, those 15 states account for about 35 percent of the U.S. population.

Over the past year, there's been a stream of major national polls indicating that a majority of people support same-sex marriage. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday, 53 percent of those questioned say gay marriage should be legal, a new high for the poll, while 39 percent, a new low, say it should be illegal.

Political consultant Frank Schubert, a leading strategist for campaigns against same-sex marriage in California and elsewhere, said such polls are misleading and he asserted that same-sex marriage would be rejected if a national referendum were held now.

"The pollsters are asking if same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal, and that phrasing is problematic because it implies some government sanction against same-sex couples," Schubert said. "People want to be sympathetic to same-sex couples, so polls that use that language aren't particularly useful."

The more useful question, Schubert said, is whether marriage should be defined as the union of a man and a woman — the gist of the constitutional amendments approved in 30 states.

"If you ask that question, you get strong majorities," Schubert said.

Mark DeCamillo, director of the Field Poll in California, agreed with Schubert that same-sex marriage probably would lose in a hypothetical national referendum now. One important factor, he said, is whether there would be more intensity among supporters or opponents.