How Surveys Overstate Support for Same Sex Marriage


Last week University of Texas Sociology Professor Mark Regnerus had an interesting essay on National Review Online about public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage.  The mainstream media has lavished plenty of coverage on both the 2012 electoral victories for same-sex marriage and polls which show increasing public support for same sex marriage.  The non-stop spin is that same-sex marriage is growing rapidly in popularity, is very popular among young adults, and already enjoys the support of a majority of Americans.  As such, same-sex marriage is all but inevitable.  However, Regnerus cogently offers three reasons why support for same-sex marriage may not be a great as pollsters and the mainstream media might like you to think.

Marriage1) Question Wording

It is no secret that the specific wording of survey questions can influence how people respond. For instance, on the abortion issue, individuals are likely to give a “pro-life” response if they are asked if unborn children deserve legal protection.  Conversely, they are likely to offer a “pro-choice” response if the questions center around women’s rights or reproductive freedom.

The wording of survey questions on same sex marriage can also affect the results. When polling organizations like Gallup and USA Today use the word “rights” in their question support for same sex marriage hovers around 54 or 55 percent.  Interestingly, Quinnipac University asks a more balanced question, “In general, do you support or oppose same-sex marriage?”  When the question is posed in this manner,  only around 45 percent of respondents indicate support for same-sex marriage.

2) Priming

Research firms and scholars of public opinion know responses to any particular survey question can be influenced by preceding questions. For instance, when polls on abortion are conducted people are more likely to give a “pro-life” response if asked questions about religion beforehand.  Conversely, individuals who are asked questions about feminism beforehand are more likely to describe themselves as “pro-choice.”

Regnerus points out that priming impacts the results of surveys on same-sex marriage. In several surveys, Gallup asks respondents whether “think gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal,” This is an odd survey question since the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down all state sodomy laws.  However, when Gallup asks this question prior to the same-sex marriage question – support for same-sex marriage increases anywhere from 6 to 7 percentage points.

3) Response Bias

Political scientists also know that when asked about controversial issues, some respondents will not give their actual opinion, but instead give the answer they deem socially acceptable. Regernus shows that this is the case with same-sex marriage.  He cites the research of Patrick Egan at New York University who compared polls on same-sex marriage to election results on statewide ballot propositions over a 10 year timespan. He found that the polls overestimate the actual support for same sex marriage by an average of 7 percentage points.


Overall, there is certainly evidence from both the ballot box and public opinion surveys that support for same sex marriage has increased in recent years.  However, a number of people are still conflicted by the issue. Regnerus states that that when a 2011 New Family Structures Survey gave respondents the option to say that they were “unsure” about same sex marriage – almost 25 percent of 19 to 39 year olds said that they were “unsure.” All in all, a more thorough analysis of public opinion surveys indicates that public support for same sex marriage is likely less than commonly thought.  Furthermore, a significant percentage of Americans are conflicted by the issue and open to persuasion. Supporters of traditional marriage need not give up the fight.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

MICHAEL J. NEW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the Research and Education Arm of the Susan B. Anthony List. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Dartmouth College, Dr. New received a master’s degree in statistics and a doctorate in political science from Stanford University in 2002. Before coming to Michigan, Dr. New worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-MIT Data Center and later taught at The University of Alabama. Dr. New researches and writes about the social science of pro-life issues. He gives presentations on both the positive impact of pro-laws and the gains in public support for the pro-life position. He is a frequent blogger on National Review Online's "The Corner." Dr. New's study pro-life legislation was recently published by State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Four of his other studies on the effects of pro-life legislation have been published by the Heritage Foundation and another study was published by Family Research Council in 2008.

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