Next year, Minnesota will become the 30th state to ask voters to ban same-sex marriage in its state constitution.
All of the other 29 states eventually passed their amendments, but public opinion on the issue appears to be shifting quickly. Polls in Minnesota and nationally show a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Younger people are more supportive of same-sex marriage — a 20-year-old is about 8 percent more likely to support it than someone who is 30, said Georgia State University professor Gregory Lewis.
At the same time, many Democrats now view gays and lesbians as members of a minority group who deserve equal rights. "I think that they are increasingly seeing same-sex marriage or marriage rights as being part of what it means to be equal in this society," he said.
Lewis has studied public opinion on gay rights issues for 15 years. He discussed his findings with Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer on Tuesday.
An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
Cathy Wurzer: A poll released earlier this month showed that 55 percent of Minnesotans oppose amending the state constitution to ban same sex marriage. Back in 2004 that same poll found only 35 percent opposed such an amendment. Have you seen a similar shift in other states?
Gregory Lewis: We have definitely seen a long-term strong shift in favor of same-sex marriage nationally and in almost all states. And just in the past year or so, we've seen fairly dramatic changes at the national level with a series of polls now showing majority support for same-sex marriage.
Wurzer: What do you think is driving that shift in public opinion?
Lewis: There are two main things that are going on. The first is what's called cohort replacement. Younger people are substantially more supportive of same-sex marriage than older people. My research suggests that people born since 1964, the rate of increase is something like eight-tenths of a percentage point per year. That is, someone who is 20 today is about 8 percentage points more likely to support same-sex marriage than someone who is 30.
As a result of changes in the population, younger people moving into the electorate, we're seeing a change up to 2009 of about 3 or 4 percentage points a year, and then beyond that, we're seeing another six-tenths or more change in people actually changing their minds.
Wurzer: I'm curious, what do we know about those individuals who appear to be changing their mind on this issue?
Lewis: We know that they tend to be liberals, and they tend to be Democrats. I think that there are definitely political sorts of things that are going on. Interestingly, they're also more likely to be white than to be minority.
Wurzer: Do you think there's something happening, you mentioned maybe a political shift? Can you put your finger on anything specifically?
Lewis: My guess is that liberals and Democrats are increasingly seeing lesbians, gay men and bisexuals as a minority group that are entitled to equality. And so I think that they are increasingly seeing same-sex marriage or marriage rights as being part of what it means to be equal in this society.
Wurzer: You mentioned younger voters being supportive of same-sex marriage, but older voters tend to go to the polls. Is that a reason these amendments tend to pass?
Lewis: That's certainly part of the reason. Opposition to same-sex marriage has been very strong in this country, and a lot of these elections occurred back in 2004 when there was much stronger opposition to same-sex marriage than there is today. Also, the ballot measures have tended to be concentrated in the states that are most opposed to same-sex marriage. So almost all of the southern states have had votes on same-sex marriage. Very few of the states in the northeast have, for instance.
Wurzer: These polls are also being taken before a year and a half long campaign that will likely involve millions of dollars' worth of ads on both sides. How much affect do you think that will have on public opinion?
Lewis: My sense is that it's not going to have a tremendous amount of effect. (Political scientist) Charles Gossett and I looked at Proposition 8 in California, where I believe $160 million was spent on the election, and we found very little shift in public opinion over the course of the election.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)