The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Legalize it! The stark generational divide on pot, gay marriage and illegal immigration

Strong majorities of adults under age 30 support gay marriage and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and a majority supports legalizing small amounts of marijuana according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The fact that younger Americans are consistently more supportive of these measures  than the oldest generation may signal change in the years to come. For those under age 30, about two thirds support gay marriage and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Support is shallower for legalizing marijuana but a majority of young people still support it. Middle age Americans (age 40 to 64) split more narrowly on each question while seniors (age 65 plus) generally oppose gay marriage and marijuana and split on a "path to citizenship."

Overall, Americans support a “path to citizenship” by 57 to 39 percent, while splitting about evenly on gay marriage (51 percent support, 47 percent oppose) and legalizing marijuana possession (48 support, 50 oppose).

The poll numbers are consistent with changing dynamics at the ballot box. After a losing streak in over 30 statewide contests, gay marriage won approval at the ballot box in Maryland, Maine and Washington last Tuesday. In Minnesota, a proposal to ban gay marriage in the state constitution was rejected. Maryland voters also approved their version of a "Dream Act", allowing qualified illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. Colorado and Washington voters supported laws permitting possession, and in Colorado, consumption of small amounts of marijuana. (Oregon voters rejected marijuana legalization, and Arkansas rejected medically-approved marijuana).

Picking apart support within sub-groups in the polls reveals the ranging dynamics at play. Women are 18 percentage points more supportive of gay marriage than men (59 to 41 percent), but men are seven points more apt to support legalizing marijuana. And racial diversity explains much of the generational gap on immigration: Support for a "path to citizenship" is at 52 percent among whites under age 50 and 49 percent among those who are older. But two-thirds of both older and younger non-whites support a route to citizenship.

A bare 51 percent majority of African Americans oppose gay marriage while a similarly slim 54 percent support marijuana. Hispanics tilt the other way with 53 percent in support of gay marriage and a much wider 65 percent in opposition to marijuana.

The way forward on immigration issues appears to be most difficult for Republicans. While a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for illegals, 82 percent of Hispanics support it, with 56 percent supporting it "strongly." President Obama increased his share of the Hispanic vote from 2008, a growing and critical constituency.

This poll was conducted Nov. 7 to 11 among a random national sample of 1,023 adults, using conventional and cellular phones. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Error margins are larger for subgroups.