WASHINGTON -- Support for gay marriage has become the majority opinion, and voters now also say they're more likely to reject a presidential candidate opposed to gay marriage than one who backs it -- something gay marriage advocates hope marks a political tipping point for 2016.
In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, more than a third of voters say they don't care what position a candidate takes on the issue, but those who do care say they favor gay rights by an 8-point margin. Thirty-four percent of voters say they'd prefer a presidential candidate to support gay marriage, and just 26 percent say they'd prefer a candidate to oppose it. Most Democrats want a gay-marriage advocate, while Republicans voters are more likely to say they don't care or are unsure than that they'd actively favor an anti-gay marriage candidate.
Just three years ago, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 20 percent of Americans were more likely to vote for a gay marriage opponent, and just 15 percent for a gay marriage supporter.
According to the latest results, voters on both sides of the debate are about equally likely to consider the issue a deal-breaker, with 57 percent of voters who'd prefer a gay marriage supporter saying they wouldn't vote for a gay marriage opponent, and 58 percent of voters who'd prefer a gay marriage opponent saying they wouldn't vote for a supporter.
Since supporters make up a slightly bigger chunk of the population, that translates to about 20 percent of voters overall who say opposition to gay marriage is a deal-breaker, while about 15 percent say supporting it is.
Proponents of gay marriage say those numbers are a reflection of the fact they're no longer playing defense in elections.
“When it comes to LGBT equality, we've reached a crossroads, and for the first time, candidates who oppose issues like marriage equality or nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans find themselves at risk of being rejected by the voters," said JoDee Winterhof, vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign.
For the majority of voters, gay marriage isn't a deciding issue. In 2014, just 8 percent of Americans named gay marriage one of the most important issues to their vote. The type of voter who's willing to stake a decision on gay marriage is also far more likely to be a stalwart partisan than a swing voter.
The strongest gay marriage supporters are mostly self-described liberal Democrats. The staunchest opponents, in contrast, resemble the kind of voters who turn out in force in some early GOP primaries. They're mostly older, self-described conservatives, with a strong bent toward the religious. Sixty-four percent describe themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and 89 percent say religion plays a somewhat or very important role in their life.
"I don't think you're going to see a single Republican come out in support of same-sex marriage, but you may see some downplaying it in preparation for facing a general electorate, which is by and large supportive of the issue," said Daniel Cox, the research director at the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute.
Voters who identify as independents tend to line up more closely with Democrats in their opinions of gay marriage, saying by an 8-point margin that they'd prefer a candidate to support than to oppose gay marriage. Those who'd prefer a gay marriage supporter, though, are less likely than their Democratic peers to say the issue would be a deal-breaker.
Still, the relatively weak enthusiasm for candidates who outright oppose gay marriage is yet another sign of how rapidly opinion has shifted, and how far it's pulled campaign politics along with it.
The latest General Social Survey, which has tracked American attitudes for decades, finds a clear majority now approve of gay marriage, the result of what the survey's director called "one of the most impressive changes we've measured." Support among Republicans has risen 14 points in the last two years alone.
In 2004, the issue divided candidates in the Democratic primary; by 2013, when Hillary Clinton announced her support for gay marriage, the pronouncement seemed relatively de rigueur. “You can't be a Democratic candidate in 2016 and oppose same-sex marriage," Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman for Obama, said on MSNBC at the time.
Republican candidates are now faced with a trickier balancing act in shoring up their base without alienating the wider electorate, and many have offered muted takes on the issue. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush showed little enthusiasm for working to repeal state same-sex marriage laws, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said last year that the issue is "over in Wisconsin" and that he'd rather focus on his jobs plan.
Opinions on gay marriage are "moving so quickly, it's unbelievable," Cox said. "If you went back five or six years, I don't think anyone would have predicted that we'd be where we are right now."
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews, including 877 of registered voters, conducted March 10-11 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.
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