A tidal wave of media attention has accompanied the lead-up to oral arguments on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday. Figures and groups as diverse as Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the American Academy of Pediatrics and former Republican advisers have all come out in some form or another in favor of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Ironically, the public reversals of so many “opinion leaders” follow major shifts in public attitudes on gay marriage. A recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that a majority of Americans now support extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, a reversal in public opinion 10 years in the making. In September 2003, only 37 percent of Americans supported gay marriage while 55 percent opposed it. By March of this year, 58 percent said that they supported gay marriage compared with 36 percent in opposition.
Viewed from Texas, aside from the occasional stillborn piece of legislation seeking to reverse the state Constitution’s ban on gay marriage — passed by voters in 2005 — it may feel like this sea change has occurred somewhere else. Onlookers housed in Texas’ more conservative and religious state culture might be quick to observe with little fanfare the banality of New Yorkers, Californians and those people from Massachusetts supporting gay marriage. But while California may have (narrowly) passed its own ban on gay marriage in 2008, the context of its passage was quite different than Texas circa 2005. No sooner had the the voting machines cooled before the protests had begun, followed by legal and political efforts to reverse the measure, efforts that have now arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Texans may have paid less attention to the politics of gay marriage as the issue has risen in public consciousness on the coasts; nevertheless, public opinion in Texas has a dynamism of its own in the midst of a national environment that has become increasingly accepting, even blasé, about same sex couples. The accumulated results between 2009 and the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last February suggest that the early results caught the leading edge of a shift in public opinion on the recognition of gay relationships, particularly when respondents are given the option of civil unions instead of the binary choice of either supporting or opposing “gay marriage.”
While the country has been jogging toward its new position on gay marriage (with many politicians now sprinting to catch up), Texans appear to have been moseying along in the same direction. In seven of our last 16 UT/Tribune surveys, we have asked respondents for their opinion on gay marriage and civil unions, giving respondents four response options: that “gays and lesbians should have the right to marry,” that “gays and lesbians should have the right to civil unions but not marriage,” that “gays and lesbians should not have the right to civil unions or marriage” and a “don’t know” response option.
When we went back to examine the trend lines in the polls that included the gay marriage item, it became evident that overall opposition to same sex-marriage has been on a slow and steady decline, with some internal patterns of change among particular age, gender and partisan subgroups, including young people and suburbanites
Among the overall population, the bottom line is that roughly 60 percent of respondents favor some sort of same-sex union (combining those supporting gay marriage or civil unions). While 32 percent supported civil unions and 29 percent supported gay marriage in June 2009, in February 2013, 28 percent supported civil unions and 37 percent supported gay marriage, making support for gay marriage the clear plurality position in Texas. A graphic at the Texas Politics Project website presents the trend lines for the overall results as well as several subgroups.
Partisan identification plays a major role in shaping attitudes on gay marriage, though real internal changes in positions on the issue have occurred recently among both Democrats and Republicans as levels of outright opposition to the recognition of gay relationships has decreased. While majorities of Democrats have supported gay marriage in all but one poll since June 2009, a recent surge has occurred between the election and our most recent poll. In our pre-election survey in October 2012, 53 percent of Democrats expressed support for gay marriage, but as the chorus of individuals supporting same-sex marriage has grown, Democratic support in Texas has increased to 63 percent. Opposition among Democrats to any form of gay union has been on a steady decline, from 25 percent in February 2012 to 17 percent in October and finally 16 percent in our most recent survey.
The results among Texas Republicans reflect greater sensitivity to the complexities of a changing political environment on the right. While support for gay marriage has been on a glacial but steady incline, the major fault line for Republicans has been between opposition and civil union support, which have traded places as the plurality position a number of times in recent years. When we first asked the question in June 2009, equal proportions of Republicans opposed same-sex unions as supported civil unions, 44 percent. Since then, civil union support and outright opposition have traded places twice amidst what appeared to be an overall decline in opposition, but in February 2013 came back into alignment at 41 percent each.
It seems plausible that the libertarian, small-government streak in the GOP makes civil unions a kind of safe harbor for competing values of personal freedom and limited government, on one hand, and conservative conceptions of heterosexual marriage and religion on the other. In all likelihood, the recent shifts towards civil union acceptance and back again toward opposition is related to the high profile that gay marriage received both during the election and in recent months. The coverage of gay marriage during the election most likely drove many away from outright hostility to same-sex unions and toward the more compromising position of civil union support, but increased attention in recent months has also probably reaffirmed and reinforced the partisan nature of the gay marriage debate.
From an electoral standpoint, it’s clear why Republicans find themselves in a bit of a quandary. In addition to the fact that this issue is a much clearer win for Democrats among Democratic voters than it is for the GOP among their own base, the recent shift among groups that Republicans need to win over in order to have both short and long-term success presents a serious conundrum. In the short term, three of those groups — independents, suburbanites and women — all appear to be trending with the rest of the country. In our most recent survey, 68 percent of independents expressed support for gay marriage or civil unions, 49 percent of suburbanites said that they supported gay marriage (up 18 points since October 2012) and among women, opposition to same-sex marriage is down 7 points since 2009 while support for gay marriage is up 10 points (to 40 percent).
In the long term, the generational differences on gay marriage are illustrative of the difficulty the GOP is having with an issue that once motivated and mobilized the base of George W. Bush. At the beginning of our time series, 49 percent of 18 to 29 year olds supported gay marriage, but according to our most recent survey, that number has jumped 10 points to 59 percent. Even more striking, those opposing gay marriage among the youngest cohort of voters dropped 12 points in the same period, from 28 percent down to 16 percent. There also appears to be movement among 30- to 44-year-olds, but within this group, the movement is from civil unions to gay marriage. The other two age cohorts, 45 to 64 year olds and those 65 and older, appear to have more fixed opinions opposing gay unions, but also make up a greater share of the GOP’s voters, yet another reminder of the problem that the demographics of the GOP base pose for leadership seeking to moderate the party’s brand.
Taken as a whole, the patterns in these shifts in public opinion around gay marriage suggest that, like other civil rights issues before it, sweeping Supreme Court action that defends gay marriage to any significant degree is likely to elicit a short-term reaction from a shrinking but intense groups of dissenters. This backlash would come from factions of the GOP base, perhaps even just in time for the mid-term elections in conservative-leaning districts. Should the Supreme Court significantly validate gay unions, the raw numbers likely to fuel such a counter-reaction are formidable. About 30 percent of GOP voters oppose any form of gay union, and some portion of the roughly 40 percent who support only civil unions can be expected to react negatively to a validation of gay marriage that will be framed by conservative activists as judicial overreach and an attack upon the prerogatives of religious institutions. The long-term march of public opinion toward acceptance of gay unions may seem inexorable at the moment, even among some of the GOP ranks. But while this new opinion landscape has clearly changed the political map for insiders and outsiders alike, the short-tem sprint toward the 2014 primary elections is right around the bend, likely to begin just as the Supreme Court announces its decision in May or June of this year. It seems unlikely that the upcoming GOP primary experience will be marked by a spirit of union, and divisions on same-sex marriage are unlikely to help.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.