Opinions about a pair of contentious social issues, gun control and gay marriage, have changed substantially since previous presidential campaigns. On gun control, Americans have become more conservative; on gay marriage, they have become more liberal.
Currently, 49% of Americans say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 45% say it is more important to control gun ownership. Opinion has been divided since early 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s election. From 1993 through 2008, majorities had said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 4-15, 2012, also finds that the public is divided over gay marriage: 47% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 43% are opposed. In 2008, 39% favored and 51% opposed gay marriage, based on an average of polls conducted that year. In 2004, just 31% supported gay marriage, while nearly twice as many (60%) were opposed.
Moreover, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage. In the current survey, 22% say they strongly support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally; an identical percentage (22%) strongly opposes gay marriage. In 2008, there was about twice as much strong opposition to as strong support for gay marriage (30% vs. 14%).
In 2004, when the issue was widely thought to have increased turnout among socially conservative voters in several key states, 36% strongly opposed gay marriage while just 11% strongly favored it. (For more, see Andrew Kohut’s piece in the New York Times on the changing politics of gay marriage, “The Electorate Changes and Politics Follow,” April 16, 2012.)
The new survey also finds continued majority support for legal abortion: 53% of Americans say that abortion should be legal in all (23%) or most cases (31%); 39% say that abortion should be illegal in all (16%) or most cases (23%).
That is little changed from recent years. In 2009, the percentage favoring legal abortion in all or most cases fell below 50% for the first time since 2001. Since then, however, support for legal abortion has rebounded and is generally in line with trends dating to 1995.
As in recent campaigns, voters rate social issues – including gun control, abortion, birth control and gay marriage – as far less important than the economy or jobs. About half of registered voters (47%) say gun control will be very important to their vote for president this fall; even fewer rate abortion (39%), birth control (34%) and gay marriage (28%) as very important. By wide margins, the economy (86% very important) and jobs (84%) are the top voting issues.
Republican voters are more likely than Democrats to view abortion and gay marriage as very important. About half of Republicans (51%) rate abortion as very important to their vote, compared with 40% of Democrats. In addition, 36% of Republicans say that gay marriage is very important; 27% of Democrats agree. However, the percentage of Republicans rating gay marriage as very important has declined by 13 points since 2004. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say that birth control will be very important to their votes (47% vs. 31%). (For more, see “With Voters Focused on Economy, Obama Lead Narrows”, April 17, 2012.)
Race, Gender Differences over Gun Rights
In the current survey, 57% of whites say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns; just 37% say it is more important to control gun ownership. This is little changed from surveys conducted since April 2009. From 1993 through 2008, however, majorities of whites consistently said that controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting gun rights.
African Americans are far less likely than whites to rate the protection of gun rights as more important than gun control. In the current survey, 35% say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 60% say gun rights are more important.
But the percentage of blacks saying that protecting gun rights is more important has climbed by 13 points, from 22%, since last October. The share of blacks prioritizing gun control has fallen 11 points, from 71% then to 60% today.
There long have been gender differences in opinions about gun control, but both men and women have become more supportive of gun rights. In the current survey, 60% of men say it is more important to protect gun rights, up from 46% in April 2008. Just 39% of women say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. But that percentage also is higher than it was four years ago (30%).
Partisan differences in opinions about gun control have widened in recent years. Before 2009, no more than about six-in-ten Republicans prioritized gun rights over gun control. In six surveys since April 2009, between 65% and 72% (in the current survey) of Republicans have said it is more important to protect gun rights.
Independents also have become more supportive of gun rights. Currently, 55% say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns; 40% say it is more important to control gun ownership. That is little changed from surveys conducted since 2009. In prior surveys, majorities of independents said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights.
Democrats’ opinions have shown far less change over time. In the current survey, 67% of Democrats say it is more important to control gun ownership, compared with just 27% who say it is more important to protect gun rights.
Decreasing Opposition to Gay Marriage
In the last two presidential campaigns, there was far more opposition than support for gay marriage. But today, opinions are divided and there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage (22% each). (For a visual display of changes in attitudes toward gay marriage across various groups since 2001, see “Graphics Slideshow: Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).
Since 2004, there has been a broad-based decline in opposition – including strong opposition –to gay marriage. In 2004, Americans younger than 30 were divided (48% opposed, 45% favored). Today, young people favor gay marriage by more than two-to-one (65% to 30%). Opposition has declined by the same percentage – 18 points – among those 65 and older; still, a majority (56%) of this group continues to oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Strong opposition has declined 18 points since 2004 among those 65 and older (from 46% to 28%) and 14 points among those younger than 30 (from 28% to 14%).
In the current survey, majorities of Democrats (59%) and independents (52%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. In 2008, Democrats favored gay marriage by 50% to 42%, while independents were divided (44% favored, 45% opposed). In 2004, pluralities of both groups (50% of Democrats, 53% of independents) opposed gay marriage. Republicans continue to oppose gay marriage by a wide margin (68% to 23%), but Republican opposition has declined by 10 points – and strong opposition by 14 points – since 2004.
White evangelical Protestants remain overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage, and opinion among this group has shown relatively little change since 2004. In the current survey, 78% of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage, with 56% strongly opposed.
Whites, Blacks and Gay Marriage
In 2008, there were sizable differences in opinions about gay marriage among whites and blacks. While whites opposed gay marriage by a modest 51% to 41% margin, blacks opposed gay marriage by more than two-to-one (63% to 26%).
But the gap has narrowed. Since 2008, the proportion of African Americans favoring gay marriage has increased from 26% to 39%, while opposition has fallen from 63% to 49%.
Support for gay marriage also has increased among whites, though far less dramatically (from 41% in 2008 to 47% in the current survey).
Abortion Views Little Changed
In contrast with opinions about gun control and gay marriage, public attitudes regarding abortion have changed relatively little in recent years. In surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012, 53% say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 41% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Opinion was more evenly divided in 2009 and 2010 (48% legal in all most cases vs. 44% illegal in all most cases). But opinions since the start of last year are almost identical to those from surveys conducted in 2007 and 2008 (54% legal vs. 40% illegal). This analysis combines surveys in each two-year period (2007-2008, 2009-2010, 2011-2012), which enables analysis of the views of small demographic groups.
Unlike opinions about gay marriage, opinions about abortion differ only modestly across age groups. Narrow majorities of those younger than 30 (53%), 30 to 49 (54%) and 50 to 64 (55%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Nearly half of those 65 and older (48%) also support legal abortion.
There are only small differences in opinions about abortion between men and women: 55% of women and 51% of men say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. By contrast, opinions differ substantially by education: 61% of college graduates support legal abortion compared with 46% of those with a high school education or less.
As in the past, there are wide partisan, ideological and religious differences over abortion. Conservative Republicans oppose legal abortion by about two-to-one (65% to 31%). Majorities across other political and ideological groups, including 55% of moderate and liberal Republicans, favor legal abortion.
Among religious groups, majorities of white evangelical Protestants (64%) and Hispanic Catholics (54%) oppose legal abortion. Support for legal abortion is highest among Jews (86%) and the religiously unaffiliated (72%). There continue to be wide differences in views based on religious attendance, regardless of affiliation: Fully 72% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services support legal abortion; that compares with fewer than half as many of those who attend weekly or more (34%).