July 13, 2004

Reading the Polls on Gay Marriage and the Constitution

Pew Research Center Pollwatch

Despite extensive public opposition to gay marriage, Americans are conflicted over whether to amend the Constitution to outlaw this practice. Recent polls on a possible constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage have yielded very different results, with support as low as 36% and as high as 60%.

Opinion on this subject varies, depending on how the issue is framed. A May survey by the Gallup Organization found 51% in favor of a constitutional amendment, with 45% opposed. The question stated the amendment “would define marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus barring marriages between gay or lesbian couples.”

The public is less supportive of a constitutional amendment when presented with the option of allowing states to deal with this issue. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in March, just 44% supported a constitutional amendment ­ with 53% opposed ­ when asked this question:

“Would you support amending the U.S. Constitution to make it illegal for homosexual couples to get married anywhere in the U.S., or should each state make its own laws on homosexual marriage?”

Polls find more support for a constitutional amendment when no mention of states rights is made, and the question does not specify that the amendment will explicitly prohibit gay marriages. In May, a CBS News survey found that 60% favored “an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow marriage ONLY between a man and a woman.”

Yet an experiment conducted by CBS in February found that when the question clarified that such an amendment would “outlaw marriages between people of the same sex,” support fell to 51%. Polling organizations have long found that the public is more willing to allow something than to forbid or bar it, even if the practical effect of the two constructions is comparable.

Context Matters

Most national polling organizations, including all the examples cited above, ask people their views on the constitutional amendment after a general question about gay marriage. This allows respondents to express their personal support or opposition to gay marriage, and then consider the constitutional amendment on its own merits. The Los Angeles Times recently found that when this approach is not taken ­ and respondents are asked about the constitutional amendment cold ­ people express somewhat more support for the amendment (54% vs. 48% after question on gay marriage).

Against Gay Marriage, but…

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press takes another approach, by seeking to elicit the views of gay marriage opponents on the proposed amendment. Pew’s question mentions that there is a proposal to “change the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage,” and asks opponents of gay marriage whether this is a “good idea” or a “bad idea.”

In a March survey, Pew found similar levels of overall opposition to gay marriage as other national polls (59% opposed). But while most gay marriage opponents thought a constitutional amendment was a good idea (36% of the public), a substantial number did not (21% of the public). This latter group ­ those who are opposed to gay marriage yet dubious about the constitutional amendment ­ are an important “swing group” on this issue.

The Pew poll also probed the reasoning of these people. In an open-ended format, many expressed a concern that the constitution was not the appropriate place to deal with the issue, with 18% saying “leave the Constitution alone,” and 14% expressing the view that the government should “stay out of” the question of gay marriage.

Opinion on Previous Amendments

In the past, many of the same arguments have been raised by opponents of constitutional amendments, and it is true that relatively few amendments have ultimately passed the formidable the series of hurdles established by the framers. This is especially true in the area of social policy.

Despite their low success rate, public opinion polls about proposed constitutional amendments have generally found significant support. A review of polls on 17 amendments discussed or formally proposed since 1939 found majorities supportive of 13 of them. Only one of the 17 was actually ratified ­ the amendment granting voting rights to people 18 and older, which was ratified in 1971.