July 31, 2012

Two-Thirds of Democrats Now Support Gay Marriage

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Overview

Reports that the Democratic Party may add support for gay marriage to its party platform are in keeping with a significant shift of opinion on this issue among Democrats nationwide. Just four years ago, in 2008, only half (50%) of Democrats favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while 42% were opposed. Support for gay marriage among Democrats has jumped to 65% today, more than double the percentage that is opposed (29%).

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The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 28-July 9, 2012, among 2,973 adults, finds that the partisan divide over gay marriage continues to widen. Just 24% of Republicans now favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, which is only slightly higher than the percentage of Republicans who supported gay marriage in 2008 (19%).

Independent support for gay marriage has grown substantially since 2008. More independents today favor (51%) than oppose (40%) gay marriage; four years ago independents were divided evenly (44% favor, 45% oppose).

While President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage earlier this year drew significant news coverage and public interest, its effect on public opinion has been limited. Two consecutive national surveys conducted since May 9, when Obama made his announcement, show 48% in favor of allowing gay marriage and 44% opposed. This is virtually unchanged from a survey conducted in April, before the president’s statement.

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But Obama’s announcement may have rallied the Democratic base – particularly liberal Democrats – to the issue. Democrats supported gay marriage by a 59% to 31% margin in April – that stands at 65% to 29% today. Most of this shift has come among liberal Democrats, 83% of whom now support gay marriage, up from 73% earlier this year.

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Attitudes have not shifted among any other segment of the public following Obama’s announcement, including younger Americans, who continue to back gay marriage at the same rate as before, and African Americans, who remain, on balance, opposed to gay marriage.

Part of the long-term growth in support for gay marriage is linked to changing public views about homosexuality in general. A Los Angeles Times survey in 1985 found just 20% of the public believed that homosexuality was something that people are born with, while twice as many (42%) said it was just the way some people prefer to live. Today, the balance of opinion is quite different: 41% say homosexuality is something people are born with, while 35% say it is a personal preference.

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But views of homosexuality have changed relatively slowly, if at all, in recent years. About half (51%) of Americans believe a person’s sexual orientation is something that cannot be changed, while 36% believe it can. That is little different from six years ago, when the balance was 49% vs. 39%. Similarly, the share who say homosexuality is something people are born with is up only five percentage points (from 36% to 41%) since 2006 – a period in which support for gay marriage jumped by 13 percentage points (from 35% to 48%) and support for gay adoption jumped 10 points (from 42% to 52%).

Those who believe homosexuality is something people are born with have consistently been the most supportive of gay marriage, and that support has risen substantially in recent years, to 76% in the new poll. By comparison, there has been little change among those who say homosexuality is the way that some people prefer to live; 63% of this group opposes gay marriage.

However, there has been a rise in support for gay marriage across many demographic groups, even those who have traditionally been the most opposed. While the share of African Americans who support gay marriage is no higher today than it was before Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage (40% currently, 39% in April), it is up substantially from 26% in 2008 and 21% in 2004. Today 28% of people who attend church services at least weekly support gay marriage, up from 23% in 2008 and 16% in 2004.

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A large portion of the growth in acceptance of gay marriage over the past two decades is the result of generational replacement — the arrival of younger, more supportive generations making up a larger share of the population. But the pace of change in support for gay marriage has increased in recent years across generational lines. Millennials have consistently been the most supportive of gay marriage, but even here the share in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry has jumped from 54% to 63% since 2008. Similarly, support is up from 44% to 52% in Generation X.

Even among the older Silent generation, which has been the most opposed to allowing gay marriage in recent years, there is increased support. Currently, 33% of the Silent generation favors gay marriage, up from 24% in 2008.

Photo Credit: RNS/istockphoto