The Skinny on Today’s Poll Numbers
Today, headlines are filled with news that a recent Field poll puts support for same-sex marriage in California at 59%. We asked veteran pollster Amy Simon of Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, an expert in LGBT public opinion research, to put these poll results in context for us and share her thoughts about what they mean for our efforts to secure marriage equality in California. Here’s what she had to say:
The Field Poll is a credible and conscientiously designed and administered survey, so we obviously have to look at their data seriously. If that number really reflects where California’s registered voters are, that would obviously be an extremely exciting development.
Nationally, public opinion has been moving fairly fast and in one direction – with support steadily increasing – as compared to other socially controversial issues (such as the death penalty or abortion rights, where views do shift but in less dramatic time-based curves and not just in one direction). Gallup shows a majority of Americans in support of legal marriage for same-sex couples for the first time in 2011.
Nonetheless, the high level of support Field reports is an outlier compared to multiple publicly released and privately conducted polls in 2011 that were conducted among likely November 2012 voters, such as EQCA’s September 2011 survey (as opposed to the Field Poll’s sample of all registered voters). Note that the Field Poll is reporting that 59% of registered voters say that they approve of marriage; they did not report views of likely voters in their initial press release today. One important question is how their results differ between likely November 2012 voters and the registered voter data they are reporting. Likely voters on average tend to be older, wealthier, and tilt more conservatively than registered voters, so I suspect the Field Poll’s approval numbers would be somewhat lower if they were reporting likely voters rather than all voters.
Having said that, there has been a lot of exciting and positive news coverage of advances for legal marriage for same-sex couples in the last few months alone – coverage of Washington State’s new law, of the Maryland vote, of the New Jersey efforts, of Maine’s qualifying for the ballot with a robust number of signatures gathered, of New York’s bipartisan legislative support for legal marriage – as well as a range of public figures who are perhaps unexpected messengers speaking up in support of legal marriage (unexpected in that they are older straight men and women, such as Washington Republican State Representative Maureen Walsh’s emotionally powerful and amazing speech that’s gotten over 1.5 million hits on Youtube in various formats, and Governor Christine Gregoire publicly sharing her own personal journey story as a mother and a Catholic, who moved from being opposed to supportive of marriage). In addition, there has been a series of positive court decisions that have received a high level of positive news coverage. Finally, there have been other public and significant policy changes related to gay and lesbian people, such as the somewhat anti-climatic repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – anti-climatic in the sense that opponents of repeal claimed it would lead to the downfall of our nation’s military, and clearly, the military is continuing to operate just fine. It is certainly possible that this intense level of coverage has increased support for same-sex marriage here in California, even in the last few months.
In fact, the Field Poll’s question wording primes respondents to think about that news coverage before answering the question about their views on marriage. The Field Poll is reporting that 59% of registered voters say that they approve of marriage in response to the following question:
“As you know, there has been a lot of news lately about gays and lesbians, that is, men and women who are homosexuals. Do you approve or disapprove of California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them?”
When the Field Poll last asked about this topic in July 2010, they did not include that initial priming sentence about the high level of news coverage; they only included the second sentence in their question above. Accidental or unintentional priming of respondents with what might appear to be minor changes in question wording is a well-documented hazard in the polling profession. We cannot know whether that dynamic is at play here or not, but it is certainly a possibility.
The Field Poll follows this first question – and often times the responses to one question influence responses to an immediate subsequent one – with a second question:
“Which of the following most closely resembles your own view about state laws regarding the relationships of two people of the same sex – gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry; gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships but not legally marry; or, there should be no legal recognition?”
The results to this question are certainly encouraging in the sense of showing an increase in support over time, with 51 percent of registered voters now saying they support legal marriage compared to 44 percent in their July 2010 survey.
The bottom line for me as a pollster and a researcher is that seeing this data makes me extremely interested in getting into the field with my own survey to see what kind of results I find among likely voters, which is the universe most relevant to the work I do in terms of creating change via the ballot box. Of course, the Field Poll does not test messages for and against marriage, so we would also need to see how initial levels of support hold up in the face of opponents’ messaging.
Have questions for Amy? Ask and well do our best to get them answered.