By Mark Baldassare
, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in theSan Francisco Chronicle
on December 4, 2008
In a historic election year in California, many were surprised when voters in this deeply blue state voted narrowly to ban gay marriage. A search for reasons has focused on the role of religious groups, and age, race and ethnic voting patterns in the passage of Proposition 8, but has missed the obvious: Although public opinion has shifted since 2000, when an overwhelming majority approved the first gay marriage ban, public support for letting same-sex couples marry still falls short of a majority.
Since Proposition 22 was on the ballot in 2000, Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Surveys have periodically asked, "Do you favor or oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to be legally married?" In our pre-election surveys in 2000, 38 percent of California voters favored same-sex marriage. This result closely mirrored the actual result: 39 percent voted against a ban.
Public support for same-sex marriage rose to 46 percent in 2005 and has remained at about that level. In surveys before and after this election, 47 percent of California voters favored gay marriage - almost identical to the 48 percent who voted no on Prop. 8.
There was no shift in voter attitudes even after the state Supreme Court ruled that the ban enacted by Prop. 22 was unconstitutional, and despite millions of advertising dollars spent by both sides of the Prop. 8 campaign. However, there was a decisive shift in views in the final weeks before the election. Our pre-election surveys showed that a significant percentage of voters opposed to same-sex marriage were nevertheless planning to vote against Proposition 8.
Whether this contradictory intent indicated ambivalence about supporting a constitutional ban or confusion about the meaning of a no vote, enough of these voters were persuaded to switch sides to provide a narrow victory for the measure. In our October survey, of the 52 percent who said they would vote no on Proposition 8, 19 percent said they were opposed to same-sex marriage. But in our post-election survey, among the 48 percent who said they voted no, only 8 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage.
Why did a majority of California voters decide to throw their support to Prop. 8? By far the most commonly cited reason given in our post-election survey is the belief that a marriage between only a man and a woman should be recognized (63 percent), followed by religious objections to same-sex marriage (16 percent). The narrow victory of Prop. 8 was made possible by overwhelming support from Republicans, conservatives and evangelical Christians, combined with solid majorities of older, married, lower-income and less-educated voters.
While much has been made of the importance of race and ethnicity in passage of this initiative, the socioeconomic divide was the more powerful factor: Prop. 8 won among both white and nonwhite voters without a college degree and among lower-income households, while it lost among both white and non-white voters with college degrees and among upper-income households.
What's next? The same-sex marriage issue is headed back to the state Supreme Court, but supporters and opponents will note that the court's previous decision had no effect on public opinion. For now, gay marriage joins a long list of fiscal, social and environmental issues that divide Californians deeply along partisan, generational and socioeconomic lines, as the largest and most diverse state moves into the 21st century.