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Attitudes about gay marriage in New Jersey

I was asked to write this analysis for a Gannett New Jersey feature, including Asbury Park Press, Daily Record, Home News Tribune, and Courier News. It appeared in Sunday’s papers.

What is public opinion on gay marriage? That question was certainly at the forefront of New Jersey’s recent legislative debate on the issue. But a better question may have been whether the public actually has an opinion on gay marriage.

Polls taken on same-sex unions over the past few years, both nationally and in New Jersey, have been fairly consistent in their findings. When asked about the issue, the gut-level public reaction is divided. However, as a policy issue, most people aren’t all that concerned one way or the other.

New Jersey polls over the past six years show that support for gay marriage has drifted between 41 and 50 percent. At the same time, opposition has hovered within a nearly identical 40 to 50 percent range. At different times, supporters have outnumbered opponents by a few points and at other times, it’s been the other way around. The bottom line is that neither side of the issue has been able to claim a clear majority here in the Garden State.

It’s worth noting that both state and national polls do show strong majority support for civil unions. Basically, the public is solidly behind extending marital rights to same-sex couples. It’s just that some are uneasy about using the term “marriage” to describe those unions.

Even so, many people don’t hold their views on gay marriage all that deeply. This was born out by a near universal blip in the polls last year caused by a bizarre event.

There was a flurry of polling about gay marriage last spring that suggested a big jump in support for same-sex marriage. Between the spring of 2006 and late April 2009, a Quinnipiac Poll of New Jersey voters measured an 8 point increase in gay marriage support. Nationally, the ABC News/Washington Post and CBS News/New York Times polls saw support jump by 13 and 15 points, respectively. Polling organizations that waited until May 2009 to poll on gay marriage, though, saw smaller increases (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics up 6 points) or none at all (USA Today/Gallup actually went down 2 points). [See national polls.]

So what momentous event occurred in April 2009 to cause this shift in opinion? It was the Miss Universe contest, when Miss California, Carrie Prejean, announced that she was personally opposed to gay marriage. The ensuing media storm was fast and furious, with the number of press articles on gay marriage doubling during those weeks. Based on the polls, public opinion initially reacted negatively to Ms. Prejean’s position, but quickly returned to its prior standing once the media attention died down.

At the end of the day, few people, especially New Jerseyans, hold deeply-rooted opinions on this issue because they do not feel that either allowing or banning same-sex marriage would affect their own lives. Every Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Oct. 1, 2009) conducted during last year’s campaign for governor found no more than one percent of voters reporting that gay marriage was a burning issue for the state. This was reinforced by a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released after the election that found only two percent of the public who said that gay marriage was the most important issue facing New Jersey and just another 15 percent who said it was among a handful of issues they consider very important.

Tellingly, that same Rutgers poll asked people how they would react if the legislature had passed a gay marriage bill. The majority said they would simply live with it.

New Jersey arguably has a greater diversity of cultures and lifestyles than any other state in the union. Our state motto “Liberty and Prosperity” could probably use a rewrite. Certainly, our present fiscal predicament undermines the validity of the current slogan, but my concern is more about better reflecting the Jersey mindset.

My nominee for a new Garden State motto is “Live and Let Live.” And public opinion on same-sex marriage is simply one case that illustrates that point.