Marylanders Lean Left on Gay Marriage, Death Penalty

By John Wagner and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 26, 2007

More than half of Marylanders would prefer that convicted murderers get life in prison rather than the death penalty, and nearly six in 10 support allowing gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions, according to a new Washington Post poll.

The findings place Maryland somewhat to the left of the country as a whole on two social issues likely to be heavily debated when the General Assembly reconvenes in January for its annual 90-day session.

Death penalty opponents, who count Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) among their ranks, are gearing up for another attempt to abolish capital punishment. And supporters of gay marriage have vowed to turn to the legislature after a court ruling last month that upheld Maryland's 34-year-old law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

In the new poll, nearly six in 10, or 57 percent, support civil unions, up significantly from nearly four years ago, when 44 percent were in favor. Meanwhile, 51 percent continue to oppose granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The poll found the state mirroring national opinion on the presidential primaries. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) lead the races for their party's presidential nomination.

Overall, Marylanders hold nuanced views on both the death penalty and same-sex partnerships.

Sixty percent said they support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, and 35 percent said they oppose it. Those numbers are generally consistent with recent national polls on the issue. But when asked whether they prefer the death penalty or life without parole as a punishment, 52 percent said they favor life imprisonment and 43 percent said capital punishment.

In a Post-ABC News national poll last year, given the choice, 50 percent preferred the death penalty and 46 percent preferred life without parole.

Many Marylanders have views about the death penalty similar to those of Carla Hosford of Chevy Chase. She said she came to support the death penalty when the Washington region was gripped in fear during the sniper shootings of 2002.

"I was so terrified," said Hosford, a former social worker and psychotherapist. "I would have killed him myself if I could. We lived it day to day, hour to hour."

But Hosford said she would prefer a life sentence over death. "If we kill and they kill, who has learned anything?" she asked.

The new Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 18 through 22 among a random sample of 1,103 Maryland adults. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

On the same-sex marriage issue, 51 percent said they oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and 44 percent said they support changing the law to allow that.

But Marylanders are far more open to the idea of allowing gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions, giving them some of the same legal rights as married couples. Fifty-seven percent support civil unions; 39 percent oppose them.

A national poll last year found that 45 percent supported civil unions and 48 percent opposed them.

Jay Dorsch, 52, of West Friendship said he thinks that a gay couple should be granted some of the legal rights afforded to married couples, even though he doesn't support gay marriage.

"It seems to me, people should be able to go to a lawyer and get visitation, inheritance, power of attorney," Dorsch said. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

The poll found striking differences on gay marriage and civil union based on age and how often people attend religious services.

Among those who rarely attend religious services, 61 percent support gay marriage and 73 percent support civil unions. Among those who attend services at least weekly, only 25 percent support gay marriage and 37 percent support civil unions.

Among those younger than 40, 55 percent support gay marriage and 64 percent support civil unions. Among those 65 and older, 30 percent support gay marriage and 44 percent support civil unions.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, a group pushing the legislature to legalize same-sex marriage, attributed the age gap to an evolving culture.

"Older generations have grown up in a society with deeply entrenched sentiments that it's wrong to be gay or lesbian," Furmansky said. "We weren't depicted in mass media."

The poll also found significant racial and partisan divides on the death penalty and same-sex partnerships.

White Marylanders are almost evenly split on whether they prefer capital punishment or life with parole, with 50 percent preferring the death penalty and 46 preferring imprisonment.

Black residents favor life without parole to the death penalty by more than 2 to 1: 65 percent to 29 percent.

Given the choice, 64 percent of Republicans prefer the death penalty; 62 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents favor imprisonment.

And although nearly two-thirds of Democrats and independents support civil unions, 61 percent of Republicans are opposed.

On gay marriage, about six in 10 Republicans and independents are opposed. Democrats are closely divided, with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing.

Fifty-nine percent of white Marylanders favor civil unions. Blacks are split, with 46 percent supporting and 48 percent opposing them. Meanwhile, 59 percent of African Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and white are split, with 50 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing.

In the Democratic presidential contest, Clinton leads with 48 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in Maryland. She was followed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), with 29 percent, and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), with 8 percent. No other candidate received more than 3 percent.

Clinton's lead over Obama in Maryland is narrower than it was in a Post-ABC News national poll late last month, in which Clinton led Obama 53 percent to 20 percent.

Giuliani was the choice of 39 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the state. He was followed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with 18 percent; former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), with 14 percent; and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), with 10 percent. No other candidate received more than 4 percent.

Maryland's presidential primaries are scheduled for Feb. 12, by which time many analysts expect candidates from both parties to have secured the nomination.

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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