Poll: Rising U.S. Support for Social Issues, Such as Gay Marriage

By Jennifer Agiesta and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 30, 2009; 9:38 AM

Republicans may not be able to rely on social issues as they try to rebound against a popular president and increasingly dominant Democratic Party, as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows rising support for same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana and a process by which undocumented immigrants could become legal residents.

None of these issues has become an early priority for President Obama, who has marshalled his political capital on the economic stimulus package and revamping foreign policy instead. He does not support legalizing marijuana, and has said he favors civil unions giving gay couples the same legal rights as married couples, though not marriage.

Obama supports a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, but in last night's press conference, the president emphasized the need to secure the border ahead of comprehensive immigration reform and avoided putting a specific timetable on passing such a law.

Support for each of these issues has reached a new high in Post-ABC polling, but none has the widespread backing necessary to avoid a political battle. By keeping his focus elsewhere, Obama may be avoiding a repeat of former president Bill Clinton's failed efforts to end the ban on gays in the military.

Clinton acted quickly to change that policy, a view shared by half of Americans in a Post-ABC poll conducted about a month before he took office, but the resulting uproar from strong opponents of the shift left the compromise "don't ask, don't tell" policy in its wake and Clinton with less political momentum.

But the shifting views in the new poll suggest Republicans face a greater hazard: An inability to use those issues to rally their base and appeal to conservative Democrats and independents who previously would have been put off by Democrats' more liberal stances on social issues.

Most striking is the sharp shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage. Forty-nine percent said it should be legal for gay people to marry, and 46 percent said it should be illegal. About three years ago, a broad majority said such unions should be illegal (58 percent illegal to 36 percent legal).

The change is particularly notable given the context in which it is occuring, as several states -- Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont -- have taken steps in recent weeks to legalize gay marriage. In 2004, a court ruling in Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage helped give rise to a slew of anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives around the country that were widely credited with drawing social conservatives to the polls that fall, when former president George W. Bush beat Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who managed John McCain's campaign, recently came out strongly in favor of gay marriage and warned that his party risked being marginalized on the issue.

The poll results back up Schmidt's warnings, as they show shifts in opinion among the swing voters the GOP needs to woo -- independents, white Catholics and the young more broadly. Among independents, there has been a nine-point increase in support for legal gay marriages since 2006, to 52 percent, with strong opposition dropping 10 points over that period.

But among Republicans, about one in five support legal gay marriages, unchanged since 2006. .

Schmidt's warnings are also borne out by the shift in opinion on the issue among white Catholic voters, a key swing bloc. In 2006, a third of white Catholics said gay marriage should be legal and 60 percent said it should be illegal. But that has evened out to a 46 percent legal to 47 percent illegal split in the new poll.

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