Why does a new poll show gay marriage support dropping?

After a meteoric rise in support over the last 20 years, a new trend may be emerging. Here's what it could mean

Published September 23, 2014 4:31PM (EDT)

A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows public support for gay marriage, on a sharp upswing over the past decade, may be leveling off.

Conducted earlier this month, the representative survey shows that support for gay nuptials dropped from 54 percent to 49 percent since February. The opposition, which jumped 2 points to 41 percent, is also getting stronger, as are the number of Americans who say they are undecided, which climbed from 7 to 10 percent. The poll’s margin of error is 2.5 percentage points.

The meteoric rise in support for marriage equality has been one of the largest turnabouts in the history of American public opinion. While there’s plenty of speculation about the reasons for it — increases in LGBT media representation, the legalization of gay marriage in New England, which didn’t set off a plague of locusts — there’s no consensus about what caused the change of heart. But from the mid-1990s to today, support for gay unions has risen from under 30 percent to over 50. Support for same-sex marriage made a particularly big jump between 2009 and 2011, when it shot up from 40 to 53 percent, according to Gallup.

Now, with courts striking down gay-marriage bans on a weekly basis, is a backlash shaping up?

Researchers and polling experts have actually been speculating for a while that support for gay marriage may be reaching a plateau. “There's been a steady uptick, but then really at the end of 2008-2009 we began to see an accelerating curve,” says Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies religion in public life. “We didn’t see much of an uptick in 2012.” After a jump of more than 10 points in two years — which is really astonishing if you consider how little public opinion on, say, abortion has changed in the last 50 years — public support seemed to start to level off: The latest Gallup Poll shows support for same-sex marriage at 55 percent, an increase of just 2 points in three years. Still, Jones says, “it's a little bit hard to predict because the trend line hasn't been linear.”

I try not to discredit evidence simply because I don’t like what it says, but there are reasons to be skeptical of the Pew poll, which shows support for same-sex marriage actually decreased over the last year. It seems pretty likely support for gay marriage is leveling off; you simply can’t expect it to jump 10 percentage points every two years.

But it’s unlikely that the trend line is dipping. Individual poll results matter less than they do in the aggregate, and this is the only one thus far showing support for marriage equality dropping. It may very well be an outlier. If you take the margin of error into account, the drop in support could be anywhere from 7 to 2.5 percent.

There’s another reason for doubt. As polling experts often caution, the phrasing and context of questions has a big impact on the results. Survey respondents were asked about the support for gay marriage in the context of other questions about the role of religion in public life. In the same survey, three-quarters of respondents said the influence of religion in America was waning, and most saw that as a bad thing. The framing here couldn’t be better to elicit skeptical responses about gay marriage: Now that gay marriage nationwide seems “inevitable,” the strategy from social conservatives has been to portray it as a threat to “religious liberty.”

Even the researchers behind the poll cautioned journalists and advocates not to jump to conclusions. "Since we've seen this upward trend for so long, we're cautious because it's too early to say what this means for long-term trends," Pew’s Jessica Martinez told the Associated Press. "We'll keep an eye on where this moves."

By Gabriel Arana

Gabriel Arana is a contributing writer at Salon. You can contact him by visiting his website.

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America Civil Rights Gallup Gay Marriage Lgbt Lgbt Rights Marriage Poll Religious Right Social Issues