Mark Mellman: No going back on equality

Years ago, I argued that opinions on gay rights generally, and same-sex marriage in particular, were changing faster than those on almost any subject in the history of polling.

That revolution continues as the Supreme Court hears arguments on the matter this week.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the 1988 General Social Survey, conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, a mere 11 percent of Americans agreed that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” By 2014, that number increased by a stunning 45 percentage points, to 56 percent.

In February, a CNN/ORC poll found 63 percent recognizing “a constitutional right” to same-sex marriage — an 18-point gain in support for marriage equality compared to their reading six years ago.

Last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegged support for same-sex marriage at 59 percent — 29 points higher than it was in their poll 11 years ago.

Indeed, every one of the dozen polls conducted on the subject this year revealed a majority in favor of marriage equality.

Why the sudden and dramatic change?

A combination of factors seems to be at work.

What I euphemistically call “the inexorable forces of generational replacement” contributed significantly. 

Younger people have long been more supportive of same-sex marriage than their elders. As the young age into the electorate and the old die, the balance of opinion shifts. About half the overall change on this issue results from generational replacement and the other half from changing attitudes within age cohorts. 

Pew data indicate that 67 percent of millennials support same-sex marriage, compared to 35 percent of those born between 1928 and 1945. But support among millennials has increased by 16 points since 2009, while support among their grandparents rose by 12 points. 

The generational effect is being felt throughout the electorate. Half of millennial Republicans and 43 percent of millennial white evangelicals now favor same-sex marriage. 

Increased contact propelled support among young and old. As more people have come out in recent years, more of their friends and relatives have become aware of the fact that people they know and love are part of the LGBT community.
Earlier this year, a poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute found 65 percent of Americans had a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian — up 43 points since 1993.

The impact of knowing gays and lesbians on support for their rights is one of the oldest findings in this young field. The late I.A. Lewis and Bill Schneider used a 1983 survey in which 30 percent said they knew someone who was openly gay. Those who did not were twice as negative toward gays and lesbians. 

While more recent, and more sophisticated, studies are somewhat contradictory, they generally underline the point. One analysis, based on California data, showed having close gay friends alone made people 32 points more likely to support marriage equality. 

Politics also had an impact. As I’ve regularly demonstrated, voters often follow their political leaders on issues. An ABC/Washington Post poll found support for gay marriage increasing 18 points among African-Americans just after President Obama announced his support. 

Changing laws could have also played a role. In 2008, half of those whose views of gays and lesbians had evolved in a positive direction cited laws protecting them as a key reason in a Harris poll.

Vice President Biden ascribed the change to TV, and 34 percent of those in the Harris poll cited television as the impetus for altering their views. More important, experiments at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that TV programs like “Will and Grace” and “Six Feet Under” could have an impact.

Whatever the cause of the change, the effect has been nothing short of seismic. While the court’s decision could seal the change, it won’t alter the long-term trajectory of opinion supporting marriage equality. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.