February 27, 2004

Gay Marriage a Voting Issue, But Mostly for Opponents

Constitutional Amendment Rates as Low Priority

Summary of Findings

Gay marriage has surpassed other major social issues like abortion and gun control in its influence on voters. Four-in-ten voters say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on gay marriage, even if they agree with the candidate on most other issues. By comparison, 34% say they would not support a candidate who disagrees with them on abortion and 32% expressed that opinion about a candidate’s stance on gun control.

Yet while gay marriage has a greater overall impact on voters than either abortion or gun control, the nature of its influence is quite different. For the most part, gay marriage is a make-or-break voting issue only to the opponents of that idea; supporters of gay marriage generally say a candidate’s stance would not affect their vote. Moreover, even among gay marriage opponents, the issue has a disproportionate impact on some groups ­ notably conservative Republicans, evangelical Christians and voters age 65 and older.

The latest Pew Research Center national survey shows that voters oppose gay marriage by more than two-to-one (65%-28%), a margin that has remained generally steady since October. (This survey was conducted Feb. 11-16, prior to President Bush’s Feb. 24 announcement that he would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage). (This analysis based on registered voters only; topline based on general public.)

Other recent national surveys have found that, in spite of the broad opposition to gay marriage, the public is divided over a constitutional amendment to ban the practice. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted Feb. 18-22 showed that 46% support a constitutional amendment while 45% believe it should be up to each state to make its own laws regarding homosexual marriage.

Further, despite the current furor over gay marriage, the public generally does not view a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage as a top national priority. In the Pew Research Center’s annual poll of priorities for the president and Congress, conducted in January before events in Massachusetts and San Francisco gave more prominence to the issue, just 22% of Americans said passing a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriages was a top priority. The issue ranked 21st out of 22 items tested.

Gay Marriage and Voting

Yet it is also the case that gay marriage evokes intense feelings ­ especially from staunch opponents of the practice. Nearly half of voters (45%) strongly oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. As a point of comparison, just three-in-ten voters strongly oppose making it more difficult to get an abortion, while 17% strongly favor tighter abortion restrictions.

These intense sentiments are driving the voting decisions of many gay marriage opponents. About a third of voters (34%) say they would not support a candidate who favors gay marriage, even if they agree with the candidate on most other issues. By comparison, just 6% of voters say they would not back a candidate who opposes gay marriage, even if the candidate is otherwise acceptable. The impact of abortion and gun control on voting decisions is much more mixed: comparable percentages of voters who favor and oppose abortion rights, and gun control, say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with their position.

Six-in-ten Republican voters (61%) strongly oppose gay marriage, and half would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on the issue, even if they agree with the candidate’s positions on most other matters. Similarly, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestant voters (67%) strongly oppose gay marriage; more than half (55%) say they would not back a candidate who does not share that opinion, even if the candidate’s other positions are acceptable. Opposition to gay marriage is far less of a factor in the voting decisions of white Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants.

A solid majority of voters age 65 and older also express strong opposition to gay marriage (60%). In fact, opposition to gay marriage is nearly as important for these voters as it is for Republicans (45% vs. 50%). There are major differences among age groups over this issue. Just 23% of voters under age 30 say they would not for a candidate who supports gay marriage, even if they agree with the candidate on other issues.

Abortion, Gun Control Have Mixed Effect

Public opinion on abortion and gun control has changed little in recent years. In the current poll, a 58% majority of voters oppose making it more difficult for women to obtain abortions, while 37% support tighter restrictions on abortion. By a comparable margin (56%-39%), voters believe it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

Yet those who base their vote primarily on a candidate’s position on these issues are fairly evenly split between proponents and opponents. About one-in-five voters (19%) say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with their position in support of continued access to abortion; 15% say they would not vote for a candidate who takes the opposite view. The impact of gun control on voting decisions is similarly mixed.

On abortion, roughly a quarter of Democrats (26%) say they would not vote for a candidate who supported efforts to make abortions more difficult to obtain; the same percentage of Republicans (26%) would not vote for a candidate who took the opposite position. Women are generally supportive of continued access to abortion (61% vs. 54% of men), and more women than men would not vote for a candidate who favors making abortions more difficult to obtain (23% vs. 14% of men).

Roughly three-in-ten Republicans (29%) say they would not vote for a candidate who believes it is more important to control gun ownership than protect the rights of gun owners. A sizable minority of men also take that position (25%).

While the vast majority of Democratic voters (68%) believe it is more important to control gun ownership than protect the right of Americans to own guns, relatively few Democrats (19%) say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on this issue. Fully 44% of Democrats say they would vote for a candidate even if they differed with him or her on that particular issue.