Can We Trust Public Opinion Polls that Show Majority Support for Same-Sex Marriages?

Opposition to same-sex marriage in the United States has seemingly melted away, according to a March CNN poll which showed 56 percent of Americans answered affirmatively to the carefully crafted question below:

As you may know, several states legally recognize marriages between gay or lesbian couples. Regardless of how you feel about the laws in those states, do you think the federal government should or should not legally recognize the same-sex marriages that have been performed in states that allow them.

The responses were as follows:

Should recognize 56%
Should not recognize 43%
No opinion 1%

In May 2010, a CNN/Gallup Poll reported that 53 percent of men and 51 percent of women agreed that same-sex marriages were "morally acceptable." Only 46 percent opposed same-sex marriages. This was a surprising result. A North Carolina Public Policy Polling organization tried to duplicate the CNN poll's results using "robo calls" rather than human callers. Their poll, released on August 13, 2010, displayed strikingly different results. Public Policy Polling reported:

57% of Americans think it should be illegal while 33% think it should be legal and 11% have no opinion. Republicans are pretty universal in thinking it should be illegal, 81/12, while Democrats only narrowly favor it 47/40. Independents array slightly against it by a 48/41 margin.
 Americans within pretty much every demographic group continue to oppose gay marriage. Whites are against it 58/34, Hispanics 57/27, and African Americans 52/34. Women oppose it 55/35 and men do 59/31. Voters under 30 do 52/44, ones between 30 and 45 do 51/37, ones between 46 and 65 do 59/29 and those over 65 do 61/31.

These findings suggest that social pressures on individuals have made many of them less likely to tell human pollsters their actual views on same-sex marriage. These data suggest that how people respond to polling depends on whether a human or a robot does the questioning.

According to recent public opinion polls, public attitudes have changed a lot since April 2009, when the Pew Research Center found a majority of people opposed to same-sex marriage, as they had been since 1996 when Pew first starting asking about public support for same-sex marriages. Pew found majority support for civil unions, by a margin of 53 percent to 39 percent. Most of the opposition to same-sex marriages comes from older people, frequent churchgoers, and religious conservatives. The morals and values of the latter groups are derisively dismissed as the irrationality of the "Bible thumpers." "Citing Scripture and other religious texts is out of bounds-even though it is permissible for politicians and other public figures to quote their favorite philosophers, educational experts, rock stars, and new age gurus."

The voices trumpeting same-sex marriage receive substantial consideration in the media, whereas those who oppose same-sex marriage are demonized and treated as bigots and Neanderthals. Before accepting a sea change in public attitude towards same-sex marriage, we should honestly consider the social pressures on Americans to bite their tongues and give a socially desirable response that runs contrary to their true beliefs. To do otherwise is to face harassment and ostracism. The tolerance of the Left has become intolerant of any thought that deviates from its "progressive" agenda.

The release of yet another CNN Poll during the week that the Supreme Court heard oral arguments related to the Defense of Marriage Act was designed to create the illusion of support that is most likely not there. We should ask whether the views of "We the People" have been accurately measured in these public opinion polls. We should also take them with a grain of salt.

Carol Swain is a Professor of Political Science and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University and is the author of Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America's Faith and Promise. You can contact her at, and