In the wake of this month's state Supreme Court ruling, do most Californians support gay marriage?
It depends – and therein lies a cautionary tale in understanding poll results. A pair of polls in the state have had somewhat different results on the question, underscoring the fact that a single number rarely is sufficient to understand public attitudes fully – and that different approaches, compared and contrasted, can better inform our judgment.
Today’s headline, out of the latest Field Poll, is that 51 percent of Californians approve of allowing homosexuals to marry – up 7 points from when Field last asked in 2006, and over half for the first time.
So most Californians (barely) do support gay marriage. Right?
That result is in response to a question asking yea or nay on gay marriage. Field also asks another question, with three options, not a simple dichotomy – whether Californians prefer gay marriage, gay civil unions, or no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. In this formulation support for gay marriage slips to 45 percent, with 32 percent preferring civil unions, 19 percent neither.
Here we have a difference from a Los Angeles Times poll a week ago. In that one, with a very similar question, fewer supported gay marriage, 35 percent (10 points fewer than in the Field Poll); civil unions drew 30 percent support (similar to Field); and neither got 29 percent (10 points more than Field).
There are other differences as well: In the L.A. Times poll just 41 percent approved of the court’s ruling; in the Field Poll it was 48 percent. And in the Times’ poll 51 percent said they’d vote to support a ban on same-sex marriage; in the Field Poll support was lower, 43 percent.
Sample differences can matter (the Times poll was among all adult Californians, the Field Poll among registered voters only, and both noted big differences among areas of the state and demographic groups). Timing can matter, too (the Field Poll was done May 17-26, an unusually long 10-day field period; the Times poll, May 20-21, a short one). So can the order of questions, and these are worth a look.
The Times poll’s first question on the subject was the one that asked about gay marriage vs. civil unions vs. neither; nothing ahead to influence answers. The Field Poll started differently, first asking its dichotomous “approve/disapprove of gay marriages” question. It would want a clean read on this, a long-term trend question. But having told Field that they approve or disapprove of gay marriages (without civil unions as an option) might have influenced some respondents' answers to subsequent questions – the three-parter including civil unions, as well as those on approval of the court’s ruling and views on an amendment banning gay marriage.
That's a guess (it'd take a split-sample test to prove it), and it doesn't mean one approach is intrinsically better. Both polls are high-quality, with clear, balanced questions. Instead they tell us that measurements on the subject can differ; a possible reason is that for some respondents attitudes on gay marriage are not firmly held, and thus more sensitive to options and order.
One thing that's clear from the Field poll is that support for gay marriages (in its dichotomous test) has grown sharply, from 28 percent in 1977 to today's 51 percent. Another is that on this, as on many issues, there’s more to public attitudes than a single number.