Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Franklin of pollster.com has reviewed public opinion on gay marriage for the last 23 years.
He makes a couple of key points. First, the obvious one. Gay marriage has become more accepted over time:
If we rely on that first poll alone, in 1985 82% of the public opposed same sex marriage, while only 11% supported it. By the early 1990s, when the data become richer, opposition was at about 65% while support stood at about 28%. Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" in September 1996, but public opinion trends seem not to have noticed at all, neither rising nor falling around that time. By the week of the California ruling, May 15, 2008, opposition had declined to about 55% while support had grown to 40%. The net effect of some 16 years of public debate was a 10 point decline in opposition and a 12 point rise in support.
A second point from Franklin surprised me. The 2004 court ruling that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage (and the ensuing political debate) didn't just draw attention to the issue. It actually shifted public opinion against gay marriage, albeit temporarily. More from Franklin:
But that trend was not uniform. The Massachusetts ruling, 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.
During the year from November 2003 to November 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage rose by five points, from 55% to just over 60%. Meanwhile support fell by about eight points, from 38% to 30%, then rebounded by a point or so by election day. (These shifts slightly predate the Massachusetts decision, probably reflecting the increased visibility of the issue prior to the Court's ruling.)
As Franklin notes, the question is whether four years later the California ruling will have a similar effect.
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