Saletan: Opponents of same-sex marriage try to explain polls
WASHINGTON -- The struggle to protect family values from homosexuality is starting to feel a bit lonely. In the last five years, eight states have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. After years of winning ballot measure fights, gay-marriage opponents went 0-for-4 in November. Scores of Republican luminaries have signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to declare a constitutional right to marriage regardless of sexual orientation. And two weeks ago, for the first time, a sitting Republican senator, Rob Portman of Ohio, endorsed same-sex marriage. Behind these developments lurks an ominous trend: Gay marriage, once a fringe idea, is now backed by a majority or plurality in nearly every poll.
What the opponents fear next is that these setbacks might influence the Supreme Court. Those mushy-middle justices might decide that the country is ready to accept gay marriage as a constitutional right. This conclusion has to be squelched. Forget the poll numbers. Forget the election results. Americans are dead set as ever against same-sex marriage. Here's how the right intends to set the record straight.
1. "The polls are skewed." That's what Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, said on "Fox News Sunday." Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, points to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, which asked whether "it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married." That question, Sprigg explains, is biased because Americans "shy away from making things 'illegal.' " (The council also claims that a Reuters-Ipsos survey, which deflated support for gay marriage to 41 percent by including civil unions as a third option, was biased by Reuters' efforts "to push that number higher.") The unbiased approach, according to opponents, is to ask whether "marriage is between one man and one woman" -- i.e., to avoid mentioning gay people at all.
2. We won 30 states. Marriage "tests very differently at the ballot box than it does in a poll," says Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The difference, Sprigg argues, is that in ballot measure fights, "both sides are fully aired." And what's the record in ballot measure fights? Thirty to three in favor of traditional marriage, its defenders report. They leave out November's loss in Minnesota, which actually makes the record 30-4. But the four defeats are the most recent votes. So the difference between winning and losing isn't whether it's a poll or a ballot measure. The difference is time. Opponents are using the cumulative record, going back decades, to hide the fact that the tide has turned against them.
3. Yeah, we got swept in November. But barely. "My side had 45, 46 percent of the vote in all four of those liberal states," Bauer notes proudly. In a postelection analysis, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, blamed the defeats on "political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states." Brown neglected to mention Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which voted for President Barack Obama, despite having been targeted by National Organization for Marriage as "presidential swing states."
4. Blame the elites. National Organization for Marriage and other opponents have long claimed to represent ordinary Americans against liberal judges. Have the recent ballot measures and polls chastened them? Not a bit. They insist that "media elites," "cultural elites," and "major donor elites" are corrupting the polls. Bauer says "a lot of people are changing their minds because there's been a full-court blitz by the popular culture, by elites ... to intimidate and to cower people into no longer defending marriage."
Sprigg adds, "It's not surprising that younger voters are somewhat more likely to support marriage redefinition than their elders. After all, they have been subjected to a drumbeat of support for it from the news media, entertainment media, and higher education for literally as long as they can remember."
Brown thinks polls undercount his Republican sympathizers: "How many more young conservatives probably support true marriage but are intimidated by their liberal college environment and peer pressure into hiding their pro-marriage views?" These cowed supporters of traditional marriage -- apparently poor, uneducated and easy to command -- are hiding in the closet.
5. We still own the GOP. So what if opposition to gay marriage is no longer a majority position among voters generally? It's still a majority position among Republicans. Reed, Perkins, Rush Limbaugh and other opponents have fallen back on this argument, warning party leaders that any retreat will trigger a fatal walkout by social conservatives. National Organization for Marriage, unable to assure Republican politicians that opposing same-sex marriage is a safe position in a general election, threatens them instead with defeats in their primaries.
6. Polls are shifting back in our favor. FRC says the Post survey is old news: "Just two days ago, news outlets were plastering its poll results of 'record' backing for same-sex 'marriage' on their websites -- only to see the support vanish as quickly as it appeared. Today, the Reuters Corporation released the results of an even bigger poll than the Post's and found that only 41 percent of America supports 'gay marriage.' ... In 48 hours, we've seen a 17-point swing in public opinion on marriage." How did 17 percent of Americans turn against gay marriage in 48 hours? They didn't. The Post poll was taken from March 7 to 10. The Reuters poll was taken from Jan. 1 to March 14. So the shift, if there was one, went the other way. In truth, you can't compare the two questions, since one offered a middle option and the other didn't. But you can examine trends within each survey over time. Every single polling organization shows same-sex marriage gaining ground.
7. Young people will drift our way as they age. Perkins argues that "history -- and most statistical data -- shows that young people tend to become more conservative and more religious as they grow up, get married and start families of their own." Beyond age 23, "people become increasingly religious -- meaning that a hasty retreat on marriage may score cheap points now, but it would actually alienate the same people later on." But the data behind this analysis pertain to religion, not homosexuality. And there's no precedent, in any generation, for the level of support today's young people express for same-sex marriage.
Nobody knows whether public support for gay marriage will continue to rise at the same rate. This issue might go the way of interracial marriage, or it might get bogged down like abortion, assisted suicide, or single parenthood. But it's clear that over the last several decades, homosexuality has become widely accepted, and opponents of same-sex marriage have now lost their grip on public opinion. The question going forward isn't how many more states will ban same-sex marriage, but how many of the bans already passed will survive, and for how long.
William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.