SANTA ANA, Calif. — When it comes to polls about same-sex marriage, it's all about how you ask the question. A new national poll by Lawrence Research found that 64 percent of Americans feel that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. Thirty-three percent feel marriage should be redefined to include any two people.
The poll results may seem to contradict a Gallup poll in May that found 53 percent of Americans thought "marriage between same-sex couples should … be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage."
But the results, like the issue itself, are open to debate.
Gary Lawrence is the president of Lawrence Research in Santa Ana, Calif., and is very familiar with both the topic and the polling. His company conducted polls in 2008 for the "Yes on 8" campaign, which successfully pushed for the passage of Proposition 8 in California to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Now, as several states such as North Carolina and Minnesota are gearing up to vote on same-sex marriage and as the Defense of Marriage Act is poised to be challenged both in the Supreme Court and in Congress, the question of where people stand on the issue of same-sex marriage rights is being explored by more politicians, prelates, pundits and pollsters.
And understanding the poll results becomes more important.
Lawrence conducted a national poll about religion and politics to 1,000 randomly chosen adults in all 50 states in July. He is very conscious of how his questions are different than those of many national polls.
The Rev. Dr. Cindi Love thinks this is the problem with Lawrence's poll. Love is the executive director for Soulforce, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of gays and lesbians — particularly among religious people. "Having been involved in a lot of polling, I can create questions that create the type of responses that I want. And so I think this survey comes across as being very affirming of a family structure based on a heteronormative relationship between a man and a woman."
Lawrence, however, thinks the wording problems are in the other polls.
For example, he said the Gallup question assumes same-sex relationships are already marriages. He said it was like asking, "These relationships are already valid marriages. Do you think the law should validate them?"
But the biggest problem Lawrence has with most polls on the subject is they focus solely on same-sex marriage without asking the "broader question" of what the definition of a marriage should be. "When you are focusing only on 'yes' and 'no' on gay marriage, you get a different answer than when you say, 'Here are the two types of marriage, which one do you support?'"
Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and the former president of the National Organization for Marriage, thinks Lawrence's poll results match the results at the ballot box when the question is put to voters. "People are becoming increasingly sensitive to not wanting to be perceived as hostile to gay people and that is affecting the polling," Gallagher said. She said this change has a lot to do with what she perceives as an enormous change in gay marriage advocates' rhetoric following the passage of Proposition 8. "In the past they acknowledged that not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot or a hater or a discriminator. But the main message in the press now is that if you simply don't believe in gay marriage, that in itself, is enough to demonstrate that you have bigotry or animus," Gallagher said. "And people are becoming reluctant to tell pollsters what they really believe unless they have a signal from the pollster that it is safe to do so."
One thing in Lawrence's poll that may have made religious people feel "safe" was he was connecting the issue to religious questions.
For example, 58 percent polled said they believed "the institution of marriage was created by God." Forty percent said it was created by man. They were then asked, "If God made his opinion known, do you feel he would or would not expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage?" Twenty-nine percent he would and 58 percent said he would not.
"Those who support traditional marriage are more confident God is on their side," Lawrence said. "For those who don't believe in God (about 12 percent in the sample) this is a moot question. But for those who do believe in God and support same-sex marriage, there are still a good bunch of them who are not quite ready to say that God would back them up."
Love wouldn't agree with Lawrence's assessment, however, and thinks using "God" in the question affects the results. "In our country, God is viewed as the seat of judgment, whereas Jesus is viewed as the seat of compassion," she said. "I like to ask people what they think Jesus would do about this because they give a totally different answer than if you asked them what God would do."
For Love the real question is "Does God approve of me as a homosexual?"
"I think God does," Love said. "I don't find a preponderance in scripture that God's love and acceptance has anything to do with gender and sexuality. The preponderance has to do with how we treat each other as human beings as part of a community. It is unfortunate that we are so stuck on this issue."
Another issue Lawrence's poll looks at is homosexual behavior.
The poll asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of homosexual behavior?"
Twenty-eight percent approved, 53 percent disapproved and 20 percent had no opinion or refused to answer the question.
Love thinks people are conflicted about same-sex relationships due to either their own experiences or the fact that they know and care about someone who is gay. "But," she said, "when they think about the word 'homosexual' it is sort of an 'ick!' word and they think, 'I don't do those kind of things.'"
For Gallagher, the most interesting part of the behavior question was the large number of people who refused to answer it. "Twenty percent not answering this question is a sign that people are becoming really sensitive about expressing their opinion about homosexuality," Gallagher said.
Underneath the questions, Gallagher sees two core Christian values being pitted against each other: compassion versus chastity. "Right now in the public square is the idea that the core Christian conception of sexual ethics is the cause of immense human suffering," she said. "I think people are very conflicted about what to do about it. For some believers the marriage line is the final safety net — they want to express compassion and concern for gay people, and they then draw the line at marriage to put a defensive foundation around the idea of moral truth."
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Author's note (Oct. 17): Survey Methodology
Several readers have emailed me to ask about the methodology of Lawrence's poll. Lawrence provided this summary of his survey methodology and his polling credentials:
National Survey Methodology
Between July 6 and 13, 2011, Lawrence Research of Santa Ana, California, interviewed by telephone 1,000 randomly chosen American adults (18+). Opinionology/SSI conducted the interviewing in evening hours, except for Friday and Saturday evenings, and on Saturday morning to provide the best probabilities of reaching the broadest cross-section of the American public at home.
The sample was drawn proportionate to population density in each of the 50 states, and was stratified and controlled by geographic regions. Random-digit dialing was used so that adults with listed or unlisted telephones would have equal opportunities to be chosen to be interviewed, which is the central criterion of random-probability sampling.
Samples were drawn for both land line prefixes and for cell phone prefixes, with the goal of achieving an 80-20 mix, the current standard used by most pollsters. The sample in point achieved an 83-17 mix, weighted to 81-19.
The raw data were weighted on age and education to align with the parameters established by the 2010 census. For example, 18-24 year olds came in at 9.1 percent and were weighted to 12.8 percent. Seniors required minimal weighting: 16.5 percent raw and 16.8 percent weighted.
Education was also weighted because the sample was better educated than the adult population as a whole. Therefore, those with high school educations or less were weighted up from 23.9 percent to 44.7 percent, while those with graduate degrees were weighted down from 17.1 percent to 9.1 percent to conform to U.S. census figures.
The weighting design did not produce major changes in the data, but only marginal changes in the majority of variables:
For example, belief in God moved from 87.5 percent to 88.3 percent.
Those identifying themselves as very conservative moved from 17.9 percent to 19.1 percent, and the somewhat conservative from 31.0 percent to 32.1 percent.
As for the definition of marriage question, the original split was 59.1 percent for "one man and one woman" versus 36.6 percent for "any two people." The weighted numbers are 64.0 percent and 32.8 percent respectively, the difference being a matter of degree rather than substance.
Results for the total sample (N=1000) have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points for midrange results (between 35 percent and 65 percent) 95 times out of 100. The margin of error for non-midrange results is correspondingly smaller. Results for split-sampled questions (N=500) have a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Gary Lawrence received a B.A. degree in political science from Brigham Young University in 1967 and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1972 in a program that focused on the measurement and analysis of attitudes.
Before starting his own firm in 1986, Dr. Lawrence was a vice president of the research company that did Ronald Reagan's polling work from governor through president. He has conducted over 2,500 research studies in his 40-year career.
In addition to being the pollster for Proposition 8 in California, as the article mentions, Lawrence also was also asked to, as he puts it, "head up the statewide LDS grassroots efforts" on Prop. 8. He said it was an unpaid volunteer job — and was not a church calling or ecclesiastic position.
Lawrence also posted a pdf file of the full poll on his website for his book, "Mormons Believe What?!"