Half of Americans favor making gay marriage legal -- the latest step in a long-term trend toward that position -- but public opinion remains in transition.
Gay marriage is in the news, as the White House scrambles to explain President Obama's "evolving" position on the issue even as other members of the administration -- notably Vice President Joe Biden -- find their personal evolutions progressing more rapidly. Obama's caution on the issue is widely assumed to be not a matter of personal conviction but one of political calculation. So where are the American people on the issue?
The answer, according to a new Gallup poll: sharply divided. The survey finds 50 percent say gay marriage should be legal and valid, compared to 48 percent who said it should not.
That's a slight, statistically insignificant downtick from the last time Gallup polled -- last year, 53 percent of Americans favored gay marriage. But the long-term trend has support for gay marriage gradually climbing and opposition gradually waning. It was just last year that the trend lines crossed for the first time, and support for gay marriage outperformed opposition. Clearly, both socially and politically, this is an issue in rapid transition in terms of public opinion.
A look at the breakdowns across subgroups in the poll, which Gallup provided to me, is also revealing: Support for gay marriage is strongest among women, college graduates, the nonreligious, and the young. Democrats overwhelmingly support legal gay marriage, but not as overwhelmingly as Republicans oppose it; independents are also strongly in favor. And there is no real difference between whites and nonwhites in their views on the issue.
The age breakdown is particularly revealing: Two-thirds of Americans aged 18-34 favor legal gay marriage, compared to just 40 percent of those 55 and older. Generational turnover is a major reason that activists on both sides of the issue expect the overall trend of support for gay marriage to continue. At the same time, the political debate continues to lag, from the president to the voters of North Carolina, who are expected to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Tuesday's election. The question now is when the political debate flips, and supporting gay marriage -- rather than tepidly opposing it -- becomes the safe position to campaign on.
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