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What’s Behind the Dramatic Shift in Public Opinion Over Gay Marriage?

March 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new survey shows a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Support has also grown in the courts and among politicians, including former State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sen. Rob Portman. Gwen Ifill examines the shift with Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center and Greg Lewis of Georgia State University.
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to what appears to be an evolving sea change on attitudes toward gay marriage, even as the Supreme Court prepares to tackle the issue.

Steadily and remarkably, public and political support for same-sex marriage is on the rise. The shift has been under way in the courts, in Congress, and most recently among leading politicians of both parties.

President Obama’s flip from opposition to support dominated headlines last year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At a certain point, I have just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

GWEN IFILL: Last week, Ohio’s Rob Portman became the first Senate Republican to announce his support. Two years ago, he said, his son told him he is gay.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN, R-Ohio: And that launched an interesting process for me, which was rethinking my position, talking to my pastor and other religious leaders, and going through a process of, at the end, changing my position on the issue.

GWEN IFILL: Republican response was muted. House Speaker John Boehner said his position remains the same.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: And I appreciate that he’s decided to change his views on this. But I believe that marriage is a union of a man and a woman.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she, too, has expanded on her previous support for civil unions.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, United States: That’s why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. I support it personally and as a matter of policy and law, embedded in a broader effort to advance equality and opportunity for LGBT Americans and all Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is now calling on the Supreme Court to overturn a federal ban on same-sex marriage that he signed in 1996. A challenge to that law is scheduled for court argument next week.

Recent surveys tracked the change in public opinion; 58 percent of those polled by The Washington Post and ABC News now say it should be legal for gay couples to wed. As recently as seven years ago, 58 percent of Americans told pollsters they opposed gay marriage. The justices are also taking up a related issue this term, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. The Justice Department argues that Prop 8, as it is known, violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

But the hard-and-fast party line that once defined the issue appears to be fading. More than 100 Republicans have signed on to a legal brief arguing for reversal of the California law.

But Prop 8 supporters in a new brief filed with the court today argued that, while political winds may be shifting, legalizing same-sex marriage offers — quote — “a genderless conception of marriage that is essentially unconcerned with procreation.”

Now joining us to discuss what has been changing and why are Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Greg Lewis, a professor with the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He’s written extensively about shifting attitudes toward same-sex marriage.

Michael Dimock, what is driving this change? It’s unarguable that that there’s a change going on, but why?

MICHAEL DIMOCK, Pew Research Center: Yes, it’s one of the biggest changes we have seen in the last decade in its people’s policy views.

And it’s driven by two things, the arrival of a new generation that now makes up over 25 percent of adults in this country, millennials, who are very supportive of this. And their support is growing more intense as time passes.

But you’re also finding a lot of people of all ages who have changed their minds on this over time, that about a third of supporters say that they themselves have shifted in that direction as time has passed.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Lewis, as you look at the this, is it — do you determine that it’s a political shift or a cultural shift, or neither, or both?

GREG LEWIS, Georgia State University: I would say it’s all of those things.

We have seen very dramatic 20-point rises in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade. We have been seeing increases of that size on a variety of gay rights issues sort of lagged over the past 30 years.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Dimock said it was about young people changing their minds and people getting more exposed to other people with different backgrounds. What is your sense in your research?

GREG LEWIS: Definitely, the younger people are much more supportive.

Basically, every 10 years younger a person is, they’re about seven points more likely to support same-sex marriage. People born since 1980 are about 35 points more likely to support marriage than people born before 1930. And every year, the population is shifting more and more to the people born since 1980.

Clearly, there’s some major political and religious things going on here. Liberals, moderates, Democrats and independents are moving faster on this issue than are Republicans and conservatives. Likewise, Catholics, Protestants are moving faster than evangelical Protestants.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Dimock, this argument used to be about civil unions vs. marriage. And marriage used to be sacrosanct, untouchable not a very long ago. And now — but no one talks about civil unions anymore.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: You know, you don’t hear as much about it.

There’s still a divide. About two-thirds of people would say they’d favor fully equal rights for same-sex couples as heterosexual couples, but support for actual gay marriage is lower than that across any different polling. So there is still a gap there.

I think the issue has shifted in the way it’s been argued on both sides, that this seemed to be maybe a safe middle ground or stepping-stone towards marriage for some people. I think a lot of advocates don’t see it that way, that it’s now — defining it as something different than marriage is not what they want to see happen.

GWEN IFILL: When you define it as being legal vs. illegal, is that different than saying the right — the sacrament of marriage? You ask the question differently that way, do you get different answers?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes, you do.

And I think that suggests that there are some people who are torn over this. We find that a majority of people say that they think gay marriage goes against their religious beliefs. But a majority also says they think that same-sex couples should have the same rights. You have somewhere over a quarter of the public who’s kind of torn between their moral and religious arguments and their feelings about fairness and equity.

And those people can be affected by the way questions are worded in the context of what they’re being asked.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Lewis, we talk about a lot about demographics, but I wonder also whether there’s a geographic part of this and also an educational part of this, educational attainment which would drive people’s opinions. Have you been able to see that?

GREG LEWIS: Definitely.

Currently, there are about 12 states where there is majority support for same-sex marriage, and all of them have got some sort of legal recognition for same-sex couples. On the other hand, in the Deep South, support is still probably mid-30s, whereas it’s probably 60 percent or more in Massachusetts and much of the Northeast.

Likewise, people with college degrees or bachelor’s degrees are markedly more likely to support same-sex marriage than are people who didn’t complete high school or have no college.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Dimock, are the people ahead of the politicians, or are the politicians ahead of the people on this?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: You could argue it either way.

Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage after the lines had crossed in the public level, after a majority of Americans had already tipped in that direction. But I think when you look at the Republican Party and what this segment talked about, the changes in the Republican Party and people like Rob Portman, those are the minority views within that party.

Republican views on this issue nationwide have been fairly stable. Only about a quarter of Republicans tell us that they support gay marriage. So, in some ways, some of these Republican politicians are arguably ahead of where the rest of their party is in the direction of that change.

GWEN IFILL: So, Greg Lewis, is it possible that these surveys that we’re looking at maybe don’t pick up a silent majority perhaps who could still oppose gay marriage?

GREG LEWIS: There’s really no evidence of that.

We have never seen that, once public opinion shifts towards gay rights on any issue, that it drops back for any length of time. Also, it appears that our estimates, based on the polls, of how much support there for gay marriage in each state have been very good predictors of the percentage of people who voted against the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. So it seems that the polls are reflecting real attitude change.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Dimock, this is still working its way through a lot of statehouses as well, but next week we are going to see a big — the first big shoe drop at the Supreme Court. Is there any way to know whether people are following that piece of the argument closely enough to drive opinion?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: It’s hard to say.

I mean, court cases will draw a lot of attention. What is complicated in this situation is there are a number of different legal arguments going on across different cases that have been combined into this. And I’m not sure the public is really engaged in all of those particulars. I think that what we’re sensing is that the shift is reflecting this generational component, and also for people just that their experiences in life have changed their views on this.

GWEN IFILL: Like Rob Portman, because he has a son …

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Like Rob Portman. A lot of the folks who have shifted their views, who tell us they changed their mind talk about people they know, talk about just a personal shift in how they look at these things and that the world just seems different to them today.

And to the point, there’s not a lot of sense that that would shift backward under any circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: Next stop, gay adoption. We will see whether things begin to change there.

Michael Dimock of the Pew Center and Greg Lewis of Georgia State University, thank you both so much.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thank you.

GREG LEWIS: Thank you.