Understanding Voters on Gay Issue: It's One for the Ages

One potential complication for President Obama's embrace of gay marriage is that minority voters at the core of the modern Democratic electoral coalition have usually resisted the idea more than whites. But that gap is narrowing-driven mostly by the same process of shifting generational attitudes evident among whites.

In the latest Pew Research Center measure on gay marriage from April, for instance, attitudes toward gay marriage converged among whites and non-whites: in both groups, 47 percent supported it, and 43 percent opposed it. In both communities that represented enormous movement from as recently as 2004, when President George W. Bush's re-election campaign encouraged state-ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage as a means of mobilizing conservative voters. At that point, in Pew polling just 31 percent of whites and non-whites alike supported gay marriage. Through 2010, support grew more rapidly for whites than non-whites, Pew found, but in the past two years, the minority numbers have increased more quickly, producing the intersection evident in the latest survey. (Gallup Polling also shows that attitudes toward gay marriage have converged in the white and minority communities, with each group divided about in half over the question.)

To understand the dynamics of the shift in the minority community, Michael Dimock and Jocelyn Kiley of Pew provided National Journal data showing the changes in attitudes toward gay marriage among African-Americans and Hispanics by age. To create samples large enough to analyze, they averaged together the results from surveys over two-year periods.

That exercise showed steady gains for gay marriage among African-Americans of all ages, with the most rapid increase among the young. In the 2003 and 2004 surveys, a combined 32 percent of African-Americans aged 18-29 supported gay marriage; that rose to a 51 percent majority in the 2011 and 2012 surveys. The movement was more modest, but still measurable, among older blacks. Support for gay marriage rose over that period from 22 percent to 34 percent for African-Americans aged 30-49 and from 16 percent to 28 percent among blacks 50 and older.

With Hispanics, figures are only available for the recent polls and an earlier set in 2007 and 2008. Over that brief period, support for gay marriage among 18-29 year-old Hispanics rose from 50 percent to 58 percent. It also increased from 35 percent to 45 percent among Hispanics aged 30-49. Only among Hispanics older than 50 did attitudes remain essentially frozen, with support rising to 32 percent from 30 percent.

Looking at all minority adults younger than 30, including Asians and people of mixed race, Pew found support for gay marriage rising from 45 percent in the 2003-2004 polls to 56 percent in the latest surveys. Among those in middle-age, support increased from 31 percent to 42 percent. Even non-white seniors have moved from just 18 percent support in the 2003-2004 surveys to 31 percent in the latest round.

Probably because of the deep influence of religious belief in each community, at each age group African-Americans and to a smaller extent Hispanics, still support gay marriage to a lesser degree than whites. But support for same sex marriage is growing in both of those minority communities as well-and the pattern of generational attitudes each is exhibiting suggests that, just as among whites, support will almost certainly continue to grow in the years ahead.