Does a majority of the country really support gay marriage?

As is often true in polling, it depends on how you ask the question.

A Gallup poll last week showed that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, but a CBS News/New York Times poll out today shows that only 38 percent support it.

Dale Robinson waves his flag for people driving by a rally of the Dallas LGBT Community to applaud President Obama's stance on gay marriage and in the Oaklawn neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, last week. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Brad Loper)

When given that third choice, polls show that it draws significantly from both the pro-gay marriage and anti-gay marriage camps, but in the end, overall support for gay marriage drops well below a majority.

Mostly, though, it just shows how mushy the middle is on this issue. While there are certainly passionate supporters and opponents, there are just as many people who are lukewarm (as evidenced by a Gallup poll last week). And their responses are highly dependent on how the question is asked.

One Republican pollster said support for gay marriage has been oversold because of that binary choice. The pollster asked for anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive issue.

“For the most part, the polling out there is combining the civil union and gay marriage responses together to get their ‘majority’ supporting gay marriage,” said the pollster. “There’s a reason why the (gay marriage) ban has passed in 32 states, and there’s a reason the gay community is starting to go through the legislative process.”

The CBS/NYT poll showed 38 percent supporting gay marriage, while 24 percent favored civil unions. Another 33 percent said they opposed both.

The Gallup poll showed 51 percent supporting gay marriage and 45 percent opposing it.

Notably, then, the civil unions choice also appears to be drawing some support from gay marriage opponents — a reflection that there is plenty of support (62 percent) for some kind of legal recognition of gay couples.

Whether to call that marriage or not, though, is the big hurdle that people have to get over.

“When we give voters the easier choice, they frequently take it. Civil unions is an easier choice,” said one Democratic pollster, who also asked for anonymity because if the issue’s sensitivity. “It’s why, for example, most pollsters don’t read people ‘undecided’ as an option when asking people a head to head. If you read people an ‘undecided’ choice, they are always more apt to take the out.”

If nothing else, the binary choice suggests a majority of Americans (or close to it) are at least open to the idea of gay marriage.

Whether a majority actually supports it today is open to interpretation.