March 3, 2011

Fewer Are Angry at Government, But Discontent Remains High

Section 3: Attitudes Toward Social Issues

Public support for gay marriage continues to edge upward. At the same time, support for legal abortion has rebounded, after declining in 2009. In contrast, there has been no movement in public attitudes toward gun control. The public remains evenly divided over whether it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership.

Americans also are divided about whether the use of marijuana should be legalized. Opinion about legalizing marijuana has shifted substantially over the long term. A decade ago, the public opposed legalization by nearly two-to-one.

Shifting Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage

The new poll finds that about as many adults now favor (45%) as oppose (46%) allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Last year opponents outnumbered supporters 48% to 42%. Opposition to same-sex marriage has declined by 19 percentage points since 1996, when 65% opposed gay marriage and only 27% were in favor.

Majorities of the public now support same-sex marriage in the Northeast (59% in favor) and West (56%). In many states in those regions, efforts to legalize same-sex marriage have been underway or have already succeeded. By contrast, support is much lower in the Midwest (40% favor) and the South (34%).

As has been the case since 1996, there is a wide partisan division on the question of same-sex marriage. Currently 57% of Democrats favor making it legal, while only 23% of Republicans agree. Independents (at 51% in favor) are more similar to Democrats than to Republicans, in part because 46% of Republican-leaning independents are supportive of same-sex marriage, along with 58% of independents who lean Democratic.

Support for Legal Abortion Edges Upward

The current survey finds a majority of 54% supporting legal abortion in all or most cases; 42% say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. This represents a small but significant change over the past two years. In Pew Research polling in 2009, opinion on whether abortion should be legal was evenly divided, with 46% favoring and 44% opposing legal abortion in most or all cases. Last summer, half of respondents (50%) supported legal abortion, while 44% opposed it.

Support for legal abortion is higher among Democrats and independents than among Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do 58% of independents. Among Republicans, just 34% support legal abortion.

There has been relatively little change in views about abortion among different religious groups. A small majority of Catholics (52%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 45% disagree. In 2010, Catholics were divided (47% in favor of legal abortion, 45% opposed). White evangelical Protestants remain the religious group most opposed to legal abortion, with just 34% saying abortion should be legal and 64% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Attitudes on Gun Control Unchanged

Nearly two months after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Tucson, Arizona, public attitudes on the issue of gun control are unchanged. In the current poll, 48% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while 47% say it is more important to control gun ownership. This is nearly identical to the result from a poll taken in mid-January, shortly after the Tucson event.

As in previous polling on the subject, attitudes are highly divided along party lines. About two-thirds of Republicans (66%) place greater importance on protecting gun owners’ rights, while nearly as many Democrats (65%) say it’s more important to control gun ownership. A small majority of 54% of independents place greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners. For more detail about the demographic correlates of opinion on gun control, see “Views of Gun Control – A Detailed Demographic Breakdown,” Jan. 13, 2011.

Increased Support for Legalization of Marijuana

The public is divided over whether the use of marijuana should be legal or not; half (50%) oppose legalization while nearly as many (45%) favor legalizing marijuana. Support for legalizing marijuana is up slightly since March, 2010; and over the past 40 years – drawing on trends from Gallup and the General Social Survey – support for legalizing marijuana has never been higher.

Young people under the age of 30 favor legalizing the use of marijuana by a 54%-42% margin. Opinion is divided among those in middle age groups. Those 65 and older are broadly opposed to legalization (66% illegal, 30% legal).

A slim majority of Democrats (53%) favor legalizing the use of marijuana, while 43% are opposed. Support is particularly high among liberal Democrats, 66% of whom support legalization. Republicans, by contrast, oppose legalization by a wide 67%-30% margin and there are only modest differences between conservative Republicans and moderate and liberal Republicans– majorities of both groups oppose legalization. Independents are divided in their views: 49% say marijuana should be legal, 45% illegal.

About as many favor as oppose legalizing marijuana among those with some college experience. By contrast, those with no college experience oppose legalization by a 55%-40% margin.