Why Public Polling On Gay Marriage Often Contradicts Ballot-Box Activity

The New York Times explores an interesting dynamic in polling on gay marriage. While most recent polls show the nation split fairly evenly, with those in support of gay marriage edging out those in opposition, the question that should be asked, the one that reflects the reality of the situation, is more complicated.

Every time gay marriage has been sent to the ballot box, a defeat has resulted, even in a fairly liberal state like Maine, and most recently in North Carolina.

The conundrum: the support vs. opposition question doesn’t show the reality of various stances that can be taken on marriage, which are: (a) full marriage equality, (b) civil unions (not using the word “marriage”), and (c) no legal recognition of same-sex unions.

When you ask that question, the Times reports, you get 38 percent in favor of marriage, 24 percent in favor of civil unions, and 33 percent who want no legal recognition.

So when marriage comes up in a support/opposition poll, it seems that half of the civil-union camp are reluctantly saying yes, which doesn’t reflect how they’d vote when the measure comes up at the ballot box and they’re allowed to be totally, anonymously against gay marriage. Yes, polls are anonymous too, but they’re still answering to a pollster and might feel some pressure to answer “progressively.”