Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The new California quake

Gay times in the Golden State

This has never happened before. A well-respected state poll has found that a majority of Californians accept same-sex marriage. The Field Poll just published a survey showing that 51% of respondents agree that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. It's a seismic shift.

Opponents of the recent California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the ban on gay marriages now have reason to fear the electorate will not go along with their efforts to reimpose the ban by means of a constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot. They must be quaking in their boots.

The Field Poll has been tracking the issue for several years. When its pollsters first asked Californians about same-sex marriage back in 1977, the results were unambiguous: 59% disapproved of the idea and only 28% favored it. It was a better than two-to-one margin against gay marriages. In the year 2000, the gay marriage ban in Proposition 22 was approved by a whopping margin of 61% to 39%. Nevertheless, the trend line was running counter to the results of the Proposition 22 campaign.

The Field Poll found that 38% of respondents in a 1997 poll said they supported same-sex marriage. That number rose to 42% in 2003. If we average the results to approximate same-sex marriage support in the midpoint year of 2000, we obtain 40%, a close match to the actual Proposition 22 balloting. Over the same six-year period, opposition dropped from 56% to 50%. If we do the math on those two numbers, it suggests an opposition level of 53% in 2000, whereas the actual anti-gay-marriage vote was 61%. To me, this simply suggests that all of the people who described themselves to the pollsters as undecided came down hard on the opposition side. This isn't too surprising: Even people with strong convictions may be unwilling to express themselves on an issue that carries a taint of prejudice and bigotry.

A crazy-quilt state

While the headlines are stripped down to the bare bones of the news story (San Francisco Chronicle: California Majority Backs Gay Marriage), the customary devil is in the details. The Field Poll determined that the state is a patchwork of pro and anti regions. The anti forces are concentrated in the bright red counties of Central California, the San Joaquin Valley region that still unaccountably thinks that George W. Bush is a pretty dad-gummed good president. Opposition in the Central Valley is 55% while support is only 38%.

Old people don't much like gay marriage either. The Medicare crowd is 55% to 36% against. As elderly Central California residents, my parents are undoubtedly doing their share to add to the opposition numbers. By contrast, my region of the states (termed “Other Northern California” by the Field organization) is dramatically different from the counties immediately to the south: we're 60% to 33% in favor. Even my age demographic, the 50 to 64 cohort, manages a narrow margin of support: 47% to 46%. Every younger group is even more supportive, and therein lies a tale. The people who will dominate tomorrow's elections think same-sex marriage is no thing to be afraid of and they support it by as much as 68% to 25% in the 18 to 29 group.

We are on a cusp, folks, and the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment in the November election is the last hurrah of the state's homophobia lobby. If they can eke out a victory, it will take more work and an unknown number of years to uproot the ban from the constitution and toss it out. The antis know it is their best rearguard action. If they fail, same-sex marriage will be in place immediately as voter-sanctioned state policy.

The homophobia lobby is playing for time. Will they lose now, or later?

All politics is local

I think they're going to lose now. My aforementioned parents are in the sweet spot of state political demographics, at least as far as the homophobia lobby is concerned. Nevertheless, their vote in favor of the anti-gay constitutional amendment is far from a sure thing. Mom and Dad are concerned about the impact of such a vote. They just witnessed the bitter break-up of a nephew's longtime relationship. (And not just any nephew: a cherished godson, too.) They know he did not have the full legal protections of a married man going through a divorce. They know he lost his home in the process. Sure, he might well have lost it anyway, but my parents know that my cousin was on treacherous ground as he dealt with the consequences of the dissolution of a relationship that was not fully sanctioned by the civil authorities.

When their mail-in absentee ballots arrive, my parents will hover over the entry for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. How long will they hesitate? It's entirely possible that they'll shake their heads in dismay while reluctantly voting against it, unhappily muttering, “Oh, we just couldn't do this to Johnny.”


Nick Barrowman said...

Every younger group is even more supportive, and therein lies a tale. The people who will dominate tomorrow's elections think same-sex marriage is no thing to be afraid of ...

Although I tend to agree with your interpretation, things may be a bit more complicated. It has long been observed that people tend to get more conservative as they grow older. Some younger people who currently support gay marriage may change their minds as they grow older.

And speaking of age, I wonder how much of the variation in opinion across regions can be explained by different age compositions.

Joey said...

Don't they also say, though, that today's liberalism is tomorrow's conservativism? Those 18-21s could very wel support gay marriage in the future, but still be considered connservative because they're against whatever tomorrow's hot issue will be. (Cloning, robots, you name it)

William said...

What would it take for the amendment to succeed? Simple majority?

Zeno said...

You have a point, Nick. Young people do seem to tend to become more conservative as they grow older. Nevertheless, I don't think too many of them are likely to go from thinking gay marriage is no big deal to regarding it as some horrible social disaster. I think the attitude of young people today is a measure of the degree to which the culture has changed. R makes a good point in his (or her) comment about the way that young people might be conservative about other things in the future.

As for William's question: It takes a simple majority of the popular vote for an initiative to become law. California allows for two kinds of initiatives: statutory and constitutional. Initiatives that amend the state constitution are more difficult to get on the ballot. Those require a number of signatures of qualified voters equal to 8% of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. Statutory initiatives require only 5%. Proposition 22 was statutory and subject to the supreme court's judicial review. Its supporters are now trying for a constitutional version that would overrule our supreme court.