Is Support for Gay Marriage Dropping? Don’t Count On It

A Pew poll last week showed a small dip, but the overall trend—and more importantly, the underlying fundamentals—haven't changed.

A box of cupcakes topped with icons of same-sex couples at City Hall in San Francisco (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Last week, a Pew Research Center poll showed a 5-point drop in support for same-sex marriage between February (54 percent) and September (49 percent) of this year. The result set off much media speculation about the larger public-opinion trends. Maggie Gallagher, former president of the National Organization for Marriage, leapt on the findings in an article titled, “Gay-Marriage Support Falling: A new poll reverses a years-old trend” in National Review. Others, such as Rachel Zoll at the Associated Press and Gabriel Arana at Salon, were more circumspect. Most of the articles followed Pew’s suggestion that it was too early to say what the finding means for the longer-term trends.

But is a wait-and-see approach really all that can be said about the meaning of this finding? There are two keys to interpreting the meaning of any survey that runs counter to long-term trends: putting it into context with other surveys, and examining the underlying fundamentals driving the trend. The chart below plots the findings of 33 polls conducted by Public Religion Research Institute between November 2011 and the present, including 22 polls conducted in 2014 alone. Notably, like Pew’s recent poll, PRRI also found that support dipped below 50 percent in two of these polls (with ending field dates of May 18 and August 15) in the past year.

Views on Same-Sex Marriage, 2011-2014
Public Religion Research Institute surveys

That said, there are four reasons why dips in support for same-sex marriage in individual polls do not indicate a reversal of the current trend.

  1. The trend line from 2011 to 2014 for same-sex marriage support remains positive, while the trend line for opposition remains negative. In October 2011, the public was divided, with 48 percent in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry and 46 percent opposing. In 2012, polls generally showed a plurality of Americans favoring same-sex marriage. By 2013 and into 2014, polls consistently showed majority support for same-sex marriage. The downward trend on the opposition side shows similar consistency.
  2. The polling results this year are generally stable, and the average across 22 polls conducted in 2014 shows a double-digit difference between support (52.5 percent) and opposition (39.0 percent) for same-sex marriage. Only two of the 22 surveys conducted by PRRI in 2014 showed support below 50 percent; one found support at 50 percent. The other 19 polls found support for same-sex marriage in majority territory between 51 and 56 percent.
  3. Even in the few polls that do show a dip in support for same-sex marriage, there is no corresponding bump in opposition. In the 2014 surveys that show a dip in support for same-sex marriage, including the Pew survey and the two PRRI surveys, the dip is not mirrored by an equivalent increase in opposition, but there is a rise in non-response. The Pew survey, for example, showed a five-point drop in support between February 2014 and September 2014, but only a two-point increase in opposition of same-sex marriage. The portion of respondents who offered no opinion, however, increased by three percentage points to 10 percent.
  4. The fundamentals driving increased support for same-sex marriage have not changed. The trend of increased support for same-sex marriage is primarily the result of strong support among younger Americans, and they continue to be the primary drivers of this issue. In PRRI’s most recently released survey, nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) young adults (age 18 to 29) favor same-sex marriage, compared to only one-third (33 percent) of seniors (age 65 and older). By all current indicators, generational replacement is the slow-moving steamroller that will continue to pave a path toward greater support for same-sex marriage. Younger Americans are also transforming religious institutions, which have historically been the epicenters of opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2003, there was no major religious group among which a majority supported same-sex marriage. Today, majorities of Jews (72 percent) and both white Catholics (53 percent) and Latino Catholics (55 percent) support same-sex marriage, as do half (50 percent) of white mainline Protestants.

Views on Same-Sex Marriage by Age
PRRI, American Values Survey, September 2014

This does not mean support for same-sex marriage will reach majority support in all 50 states next year—or even the year after. Opponents are often more politically active than supporters, and they tend to be geographically or culturally clustered in ways that give them outsized influence at the local level. Even so, there are already some surprising changes, such as support reaching the 50 percent mark among Americans living in the Midwest and in American suburbs.

We don’t have to wait for new polling to say that the few polls showing a dip in support for same-sex marriage are outliers in a larger trend. The incoming tide of support for same-sex marriage may ebb and flow, but it is unlikely to recede as the youngest generation replaces the eldest and as American attitudes across the board continue to shift.