Yesterday's post discussed Gallup data demonstrating increased acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships and homosexuality in general. Gallup data also suggest that perhaps a majority of Americans are comfortable with legalizing same-sex marriage. However a new CBS News/New York Times poll, asking a different way, finds only 38 percent support gay marriage. As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake explains here, the main difference between the Gallup Poll and the CBS/New York Times poll is the number of answer choices.
The Gallup poll asked if Americans approve or disapprove of President Obama's position that "same-sex couples should be able to legally marry," 51 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove.
Asked one year earlier, with slightly different wording, but also with two answer choices, Gallup found that 53 percent said "marriages between same-sex couples" "should be valid" and 45 percent said they "should not be valid."
However, the CBS/New York Times poll provides three answer choices and finds less support for gay marriage. Thirty-eight percent thought "same-sex couples should be" "allowed to marry" 24 percent thought they should be allowed to "form civil unions" and 33 percent thought same-sex couples should have "no legal recognition."
The differential response resulting from different question wording indicate the tenuous state of public opinion regarding same-sex marriage. Americans are not quite fully comfortable with gay marriage, but when asked to make the trade-off between no legal recognition and marriage, Americans opt for allowing gays and lesbians to get married. Nevertheless, this issue's "swing voters" tend to prefer civil unions. This explains why intensity is not on the side of liberalization. Moreover, a cursory overview of state same-sex marriage laws shows that those opposed to gay marriage have better mobilized to get their preferred policies enacted.
National Gay Marriage Laws