• Photo for As California Gay Marriage Fight Heats Up, Public Opinion Polls Continue to Shift
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

As California Gay Marriage Fight Heats Up, Public Opinion Polls Continue to Shift

By L.K. Regan

Californians are closely divided on a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, the New York Times reports. The ballot measure is being proposed in the wake of a recent appeals court verdict effectively legalizing same-sex marriages in the state. The May 24th LA Times/KTLA-TV poll found that 54 percent of registered voters would support the proposed amendment, which is likely to be on the November ballot this year.

The poll also tested voters' attitudes toward the appeals court's decision itself, finding that 52 percent of respondents disagreed with the verdict, while 41 percent agreed with it. These numbers indicate a significant degree of movement in public opinion on the subject in California in recent years. In 2000, the state passed Proposition 22, a ballot measure mandating that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." The voting ran 61 percent in favor to 39 percent against. This margin varies from current polling by about 9 percent—or roughly 1 percent per year.

One percent per year is, Kevin Drum writes in his blog, a fairly standard degree of movement each year in public opinion on gay issues. As he points out, surveying a compendium of polling, opinion on questions of the "wrongness" of same-sex relationships in general, equal employment rights, gay marriage, and gay adoption have all tended to become more progressive at a rate of roughly 1 percent per year over the period of polling.

The complicated part of this, Drum writes, is that there was a spike in negative opinion about gay marriage in 2004, when the issue was given a high degree of electoral prominence, and therefore a high degree of media and advertising exposure., compiling results of many polls over many years, noticed this effect:

"The Massachusetts ruling [legalizing same-sex marriage], and the 2004 election campaign, coincided with a sharp, if relatively short term, disruption of the previous slow but steady decade long shift of opinion. The Massachusetts Court decision placed the issue squarely on the public radar, and the 11 state ballot proposals in the 2004 election created the setting for public debate and political exploitation of the issue."

In 2006, a further eight states followed suit with ballot measures of their own. All told, 27 states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, and only five have no legal ban on such marriages (MA, NJ, NM, NY, RI).

After the 2004 election, polling numbers took over two years to return to pre-2004 levels. Whether this negative dip will be found this year is, of course, currently unknown. At the moment, polling numbers are close enough that the vote could go either way—and the outcome may be very sensitive to external factors, including degree of voter turnout, youth participation, and advertising. With so few states still in play for ballot measures and amendments to state constitutions, Charles Franklin of notes that effects are likely to be local and locally determined. The bottom line: keep a close eye on California polling.