The New Majority in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

When public opinion is moving quickly on an issue, corroboration is king. We now have no less than four reputable national public opinion surveys in three months showing a slim majority of Americans now support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Looking at the current convergence of polls, past trends, and current support patterns, this clearly looks like the beginning of the end of the same-sex marriage debate.

Just yesterday, we at Public Religion Research Institute released results from the PRRI Religion & Politics Tracking Survey, which finds a slim majority (51 percent) of Americans now favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, compared to 43 percent percent who are opposed. And today, Gallup released corroborating results showing, for the first time since their tracking of the issue began in 1996, a majority (53 percent) of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, compared to 45 percent who say it should not.

Earlier this year in March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 53 percent of Americans said it should be legal "for gay and lesbian couples to get married," and in April a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found 51 percent said marriages between gay and lesbian couples should be "recognized by the law as valid." The results of the four polls are remarkably consistent even though the surveys were conducted independently by different organizations using different question wordings in different field periods.

The PRRI poll also revealed a truth that is too often missed in media coverage of the issue: the debate is no longer between secular Americans who support same-sex marriage on one side and religious Americans who oppose it on the other. It is true that religiously unaffiliated Americans are strongly supportive of same-sex marriage (77 percent). But solid majorities of Catholics and white mainline Protestants (56% and 55% respectively) also support allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. On the other side of the debate are white evangelical Protestants and minority Christians, a group made up mostly African American and Latino Protestants. Only 23% of white evangelical Protestants and 37 percent of minority Christians support allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry.

The partisan divides are also large. More than 6-in-10 (61 percent) Democrats and a majority (55 percent) of political independents support allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. In contrast, less than 4-in-10 (37 percent) Republicans and only 34 percent of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement support same-sex marriage.

Three other observations from the data are worth noting for their possible implications for the remaining skirmishes over same-sex marriage:
  • The ground is shifting quickly. Much of the movement in support has happened in 2010 and 2011.
  • Support for same-sex marriage is now extending beyond the youngest age cohorts. Sixty-one percent of 18-34 year olds support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, but so do nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) Americans between the ages of 35 and 49.
  • There are now as many Americans who strongly support same-sex marriage as strongly oppose it. One-in-four (24 percent) Americans report that they strongly favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, equal to the number who strongly oppose it (25 percent).

Results from the PRRI Religion & Politics Tracking Survey were based on telephone interviews conducted May 5-8, 2011, among a national probability sample of 1,007 adults age 18 and older. The overall margin of error is +/- 3.0 percentage points. To read the topline results and full methodology, click here.