By Patrick Murray | August 3rd, 2011 - 7:28pm
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A new PPP poll shows that a clear majority of New Jersey voters oppose gay marriage.

“Hang on a minute,” you say.  “All the media reports I saw on that poll say that New Jersey supports gay marriage.  Are you off your rocker, Murray?”

No, I’m not.  I just read the entire press release sent out by the pollster.  I found information in the very first paragraph that could lead a reasonable person – or at least an astute reporter – to conclude that this poll shows that most New Jerseyans do not support the recognition of gay marriage.

Here’s why.  The poll asked two questions.  The first question asked simply if “same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal?”  And being a basically fair-minded lot, more New Jersey poll participants sided with making it legal by a not overly wide 47% to 42% margin.

However, the pollster followed that with a different question – one more reflective of the reality that exists in New Jersey right now.  If the choice was between gay marriage, civil unions and no recognition at all, the public evenly splits between gay marriage (41%) and civil unions (40%).

If you add the group who choose civil unions to the 17% of those polled who oppose any kind of legal standing for same sex couples, you arrive at a sizable 57% who oppose gay marriage when civil unions are an option, as they are in New Jersey.

To its credit, the polling firm, Public Policy Polling, not only asked both questions butreported the results for both in the first paragraph of their press release.  However, they presented this information under a headline claiming there is unequivocal public support for gay marriage in New Jersey.  And they semantically underplayed the apparent contradiction in the two questions’ results. 

 Hmmm, I wonder if this Democratic polling firm may have an agenda?  Fair enough.  They did clearly show all the results of their poll, after all. 

The real problem is that the media blithely went along with the storyline fed to them by the polling firm – even when contradictory evidence was put right in front of their eyes. See here, here (with a blatantly inaccurate headline claiming “even Republicans support same-sex marriage”), here (which bizarrely interprets 41% as a “majority” – no wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the world in math), and here.  [Note that the text of at least one of these online articles – although not the headline – has been modified after I contacted reporters about this.]

Usually when a poll has contradictory information or the pollster has an agenda, a critical observer really has to do some work to uncover the red flags.  That means reading deeply into the background information that a pollster is willing to provide, as one New Jersey columnist did recently (see the last two paragraphs).  Many times you don’t even get this information to review (in which case, don’t report the poll at all!)

For this poll on gay marriage, though, the conflicting information was presented with a flashing neon sign.  Yet, no reporter bothered to say, “How would I report these results if all I had was the question results without the pollster’s interpretation?”  If they had, I bet the headlines would have been less clear-cut about where the public stands on this issue.

And that would have reflected the reality that public opinion on gay marriage is not clear-cut.  As I wrote over a year ago, nearly a decade of polling on this subject in New Jersey and elsewhere shows that opinion on this issue is malleable.  The current poll underscores this fact.

When Democrats in the poll were asked the up or down marriage question, 64% supported it.  And when they were presented with the civil union option, a full 59% stood by their original position.  Republicans were similarly steadfast – only 23% supported same sex marriage in the limited option question and a similar 20% said the same when civil unions were added to the equation (although it’s worth noting that most Republicans do in fact support civil unions).

Independents, on the other hand, were swayed by the context of the question.  On the straight up or down marriage question they divided 46% for to 35% against.  But when civil unions were given as an option, support for same sex marriage declined by a sizable 13 points to just 33%.

Bottom line:  This poll provides clear evidence of the 'softness" in public opinion on gay marriage in New Jersey.  About 4-in-10 are solidly for it and 4-in-10 are solidly against it, but the remainder are liable to change their opinion.  And with this changeable group rests the majority.  Therefore, as the public debate on this issue resumes, public opinion will continue to shift.

There.  that wasn't so hard, was it?

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