Do Americans now favor same-sex marriage?

Two recent polls show that it's all in how you ask the question.

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published May 1, 2009 8:30PM (EDT)

Thursday, the blogosphere was abuzz over the results of a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that found 49 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage while just 46 percent oppose it. This marked the first time the poll showed more people in favor of gay marriage than against it. In August 2004, prior to the presidential election, the same poll found 62 percent of those polled against gay marriage to just 32 percent in favor.

In the wake of the setback that was Proposition 8's passage in California, same-sex marriage advocates have seen a lot of positive news for their movement this year. Most recently, the Maine Senate passed a bill that would allow same-sex marriages in the state. April overall was a great month for gay marriage proponents: New York Gov. David Paterson introduced a marriage bill into the state legislature, the Iowa Supreme Court voided the state's gay marriage ban and the Vermont Legislature authorized same-sex weddings. So does this poll just indicate a new national zeitgeist and an increasing acceptance among the American electorate for same-sex couples?

Maybe... but maybe not. Another new poll, this one from Quinnipiac University paints a somewhat different view about voters' feelings on the issue. Those polled showed strong opposition to gay marriage, by a margin of 55 percent to 38 percent. The numbers flip when it comes to civil unions, with 57 percent in favor of allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions and 38 percent opposed. Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, contended that the poll shows that "Americans have nuanced and at times inconsistent views about gay rights issues. For instance, 60 percent think preventing gays from serving in the military is discrimination, but 51 percent don't think preventing gays from marrying is discrimination."

A closer look at the two polls reveals that there was a significant difference in the way the questions about gay marriage were phrased. The Quinnipiac poll asked respondents, "Would you support or oppose a law in your state that would allow same-sex couples to get married?" The Washington Post-ABC News poll, on the other hand, framed the question this way: "On another subject, do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian/homosexual couples to get married? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?"

The personalization involved in the Quinnipiac question's wording could be responsible for the different results -- some of those polled may support gay marriage only as long as it's happening in someone else's back yard.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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