The truth behind conflicting marriage amendment polls

The truth behind conflicting marriage amendment polls

- in Weekly Briefing

And the hopeful message from Mississippi

What the heck is going on with North Carolina voters? If you only followed the news headlines in recent weeks and months, you’d think that they were suffering from a mass case of the flip flops. One day, they’re telling pollsters that they overwhelmingly support a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage and a couple of days later they’re overwhelmingly against it.

How can this be? What could possibly have caused North Carolinians to develop such an acute case of the Romneys? Did half the state go on vacation all at once? Do the polls have a “margin error” of plus or minus 40%?

The truth, of course, is nothing so strange. The simple fact of the matter is that North Carolinians have been pretty darned consistent in what they think about legal recognition of same sex couples for some time; The apparent vast differences in poll results are actually a simple byproduct of how pollsters asked their questions.

Consider the following recent polling results:

This is from a poll taken by Public Policy Polling last week:

“Would you vote for or against a constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State?

Would vote for it………………………………………. 59%
Would vote against it………………………………… 35%
Not sure ………………………………………………….. 6%”

This is from an Elon University poll taken just a few days before:

“I’m going to read you three statements, and, after I read all three, I’d like for you to tell me which statement comes closest to your position on this issue. 

#1 Oppose any legal recognition for same sex couples
#2 Support civil unions or partnerships for same sex couples, but not full rights
#3 Full marriage rights for same sex couples

Oppose any legal recognition for same sex couples……………………..………34.5%
Support civil unions or partnerships for same sex couples, but not full rights…..26.4%
Full marriage rights for same sex couples ………………………………………..33%

Would you [support or oppose an amendment to the North Carolina constitution that prevents any same sex marriages?

Strongly oppose…………..32.1%
Strongly support………….21.8%

Making sense of the numbers

If one takes just a minute to examine the questions and results, a simple fact quickly becomes evident: In general, most North Carolinians are not yet completely comfortable with same sex “marriage.” That’s why, when one asks the question out of the blue with little explanation, voters reflexively say “yes, I would vote for an amendment to define marriage in the traditional way.”

When the question is teased out a little more fully, however, a different general attitude quickly emerges. As the Elon Poll shows, only a third of voters are probably for full marriage rights for same sex couples at this time. But, this doesn’t mean they’re for denying all legal recognition to same sex couples. Indeed, a strong majority thinks it would be a mistake to do so. This is consistent with a PPP poll from two months ago.

Herein lies the rub when it comes to the marriage amendment slated for next year’s primary election ballot. The language of that amendment takes the hard line: it would ban all state recognition of same sex couples permanently – whether it’s called “marriage,” “civil union,” or something else.

If this truth is made clear to voters, the amendment will almost certainly fail as voters will quickly view it as too extreme. If, however, voters are allowed to approach the vote as (incorrectly) a simple “up or down” referendum on what they think of same sex “marriage,” it has a strong chance of passage.

For those who haven’t looked at the amendment lately, here is the language that will be on the ballot:

“The question to be used in the voting systems and ballots shall be:

‘[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST

Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.’”

As several constitutional scholars have noted, this language is so far reaching that it may well hold implications for host of relationships and legal situations not immediately evident. It almost certainly bans any kind of same sex civil legal recognition – something that 57% of North Carolinians say they are against doing.

The message for opponents of the amendment in these poll results is clear: It’s imperative that they make voters aware of the truth about actual language of the amendment.

Hopeful lessons from Mississippi

Last night in Mississippi, voters strongly rejected the so-called “personhood amendment” – a radical proposal from far right social conservatives that would have defined “life” as beginning at conception and conferred constitutional rights on human embryos. Initially, however, when the measure was first put forth, voters voiced general support for the amendment.

What happened to change their minds?

As Public Policy Polling pollster Tom Jensen told me the other day, it was really pretty simple. Jensen noted that polls had switched dramatically – as much as 40% in just a few weeks – against the amendment once opponents were able to explain just how radically extreme the proposal was. When voters finally understood that the amendment wasn’t a mere referendum on abortion – a practice with which a large percentage of voters were uncomfortable – but rather a radically extreme proposal to redefine “life” in an unprecedented way that could undermine all sorts of basic personal freedoms, they had second thoughts.

Clearly, this is the template for defeating the North Carolina marriage amendment. Voters must be made to understand that the proposal is, in many ways, a proposal that parallels the Mississippi proposal – that is, something much more than a test of one’s feelings about full same sex marriage rights.

Kick-starting the process      

On Tuesday, November 29 in Raleigh, NC Policy Watch will be hosting a Crucial Conversation luncheon in which experts will explain just how far reaching the proposed North Carolina amendment is. Be on the lookout for a formal announcement of this luncheon in the next few days. We hope you can join us to help kick-start the education process.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.