March 29, 2013

Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?

By Andrew Kohut

Recent polling clearly shows that Americans are much more accepting of same-sex marriage than they were a decade ago. All of the major national polls now find more supporters than opponents of same-sex marriage. But there is no consensus in the polling as to just how many Americans now actually think that same-sex marriage should be legal.

In the latest national surveys, all conducted this month, the percentages saying they favor legalizing same-sex marriage ranges from 49% in surveys by the Pew Research Center and Fox News, to 58% in a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Over the past 10 years, the Washington Post/ABC News question has consistently found more support for gay marriage than the Pew Research question. Between these ends of the spectrum, the CBS News and CNN/ORC polls find growing majorities favoring legalizing gay marriage.

It is not obvious what accounts for the differences in responses to these questions. They are all fairly worded and offer respondents an equal chance to express support or opposition to same-sex marriage. However, the differences may have to do with the extent to which legalization is emphasized in the question. The Post/ABC News survey gets the highest positive response to a question that simply poses whether it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married. Questions that ask respondents if they favor or oppose legalization (Pew Research, Fox) evoke markedly less support. And a recent Quinnipiac poll, which asks respondents whether they support or oppose same-sex marriage – with no mention of legalization – gets a very thin margin of support; in that survey, 47% support and 43% oppose same-sex marriage.

In effect, it may be easier for a respondent to say legalize gay marriage than to say I favor legalizing it. That is at least one theory. However, perhaps the more important point is that while polling remains a fairly blunt instrument, it nonetheless can tell the story of an important social change that pundits and advocates might otherwise characterize in a self-serving way.

Andrew Kohut is the founding director of the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew Research on Gay Marriage.