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Two National Polls, for First Time, Show Plurality Support for Gay Marriage

Good news, evidently, comes in twos for the gay rights movement. A pair of new polls shows for the first time a plurality of Americans in support of gay marriage, although they are contradicted by some other recent evidence.

There are two basic types of polls on gay marriage. The first type of poll simply asks the respondent whether or not they approve or disapprove of gay marriage; the second type gives them a three-way choice between gay marriage, civil unions and no legal recognition.

Up until now, according to the database compiled by, the closest gay marriage had come to achieving a plurality on the first type of poll was from a Time/SRBI survey in August, 2008, in which likely voters were evenly divided 47-47 on their support for gay marriage rights. However, a new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post gives gay marriage an outright plurality, with 49 percent of adults supporting gay marriage and 46 percent opposed.

In the second type of poll — the “three-way” poll where the respondent may pick civil unions rather than marriage or nothing — support for gay marriage is typically slightly lower, as about 5-10 percent of respondents appear to have a preference order of civil unions > gay marriage > nothing, where gay marriage is preferred to nothing, but civil unions are preferred to both alternatives. Gay marriage had yet to poll a plurality in this type of survey either — until this week, when a CBS/NYT poll put support for full marriage rights at 42 percent, versus 25 percent for civil unions and 28 percent for no legal recognition. This represents a significant increase from an identical CBS/NYT poll in March, where the numbers were 33 percent for marriage, 27 percent for civil unions, and 35 percent for no recognition.

Although these polls represent cheerful news for supporters of gay marriage, they are contradicted by some other recent evidence. In particular, a Quinnipiac poll, also released today, had just 38 percent in favor of gay marriage against 55 percent opposed. Quinnipiac did show a 57 percent majority in support of civil unions.

Two other polls on gay marriage had been conducted in December, meanwhile, following the passage of Proposition 8 in California: a CNN poll put support for gay marriage at 44 percent against 55 percent opposed, and a Newsweek poll put support at 39 percent against 55 percent opposed.

In addition, both the CBS/NYT and ABC/Post polls contained a very low number of Republicans, although because that trend has been reflected in several other recent surveys, it is hard to tell whether it is a statistical fluke or represnts some sort of emerging trend.

Personally, I think it is somewhat unlikely that gay marriage has in fact achieved plurality support, although I suspect it has come fairly close, and momentum clearly seems to be on its side. A summary of all gay marriage and civil unions polling since the passage of Proposition 8 follows below.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.


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