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Why Young Voters Won’t Tip the Gay Marriage Debate Anytime Soon

Monday, May 14, 2012

The electorate may well be evolving, but it’s at a far more glacial pace than is being widely credited.

The landslide passage of Amendment One in North Carolina, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, should give some pause to those who believe that young voters will be enough to tilt the balance in the near future in favor of gay marriage.

Conventional wisdom holds that support for gay marriage is tied to demographic change, and there is some truth to this. On average, opposition among voters falls with age. However, this does not mean that majority support for the legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable. There is a difference between opposing something less stridently and actually supporting it, and all the evidence available from both the results in last Tuesday’s vote on Amendment One in North Carolina and Public Policy Polling’s final poll before the vote show that voters under 30 opposed the amendment only marginally.

In the absence of exit poll data, it is hard to be certain exactly how the vote broke down, but PPP’s final poll provides some clues.

In the poll, “yes” was a vote to both ban gay marriage and prohibit local municipalities and state universities from offering partnership benefits. The latter was more significant, as North Carolina already does not recognize gay marriage.

The poll found support for Amendment One 55-39, with 6 percent undecided; in the actual vote, the margin was 61-39. This result matches past referenda on the issue, where undecided respondents to polls have nearly unanimously voted against same-sex marriage once in the voting booth. By reallocating those undecided respondents to “yes” votes, we can get a rough estimate of how demographic groups voted on Tuesday.

Here is the PPP poll breakdown:

5.13.12 Berman Amendment One

On first examination, nothing is particularly surprising here. Blacks are more likely than whites to oppose gay marriage, a similar pattern to the 2008 vote that enacted Proposition 8 in California. Then, white voters narrowly rejected the amendment to ban gay marriage 52-48, while African American voters passed it 70-30.

What is more surprising is the behavior of young voters, who, according to the adjusted numbers, only narrowly opposed the amendment. While this may seem counterintuitive, SurveyUSA, the other pollster to look at Amendment One in its final weeks, found a similar result both overall (57-37) and among young voters (41-48).

Furthermore, these numbers match the behavior of young voters regarding Proposition 8, which they opposed by a 61-39 margin (it passed overall by 52-48). This made them about 13 percent more likely to support gay marriage, very close to the projected behavior of North Carolina’s young voters, who by rejecting Amendment One by a 51-49 margin were 12 percent more likely than the average North Carolinian voter to vote no.

Both Maryland and Minnesota have referenda on the ballot, and both share enough demographic similarities with North Carolina to make it likely that they will also ban gay marriage.

If 18- to 30-year-old voters did in fact split almost evenly on Amendment One, this casts some doubt on the theory that gay marriage will ride to acceptance due to overwhelmingly supportive young voters. While young voters do seem more supportive of gay marriage, and support increases the younger the demographic in question, the operative word is supportive. Only moderately in favor of gay marriage themselves, young North Carolinians were in no position to outvote their older neighbors.

In fact, even if nobody over age 45 had voted Tuesday, the amendment still would have passed by around 8 percentage points, according to the adjusted data above.

Therefore, any strategy of waiting for demographics to realize the maximalist position of gay marriage advocates across the country looks to be, at the very least, a lengthy endeavor. States on the margins, like California and Washington, where initial bans commanded marginal majorities, might support gay marriage in the near future. But on a wider scale, movement on the issue, though real, is likely to be far too slow to bring about dramatic change nationally anytime soon.

In fact, it is quite possible that gay marriage will lose traction this November. Both Maryland and Minnesota have referenda on the ballot, and both share enough demographic similarities with North Carolina to make it likely that they will also ban gay marriage. Maryland has a large number of African-Americans who, while unlikely to turn on President Obama because of his embrace of gay marriage, are equally unlikely to accept his views on the issue. Minnesota has one of the most conservative pools of voters between the ages of 30-44 in the nation—they have even voted more Republican than their elders in recent decades.

The gay marriage movement might have other reasons to be a little less optimistic. Young voters change their political views as they age, and the overwhelming liberal tendencies of college campuses are not reflected in the American electorate.

Then there is the question of Hispanics, and whether immigration will blunt the demographic effect. Hispanics voted solidly for Proposition 8 in California, but some argue that younger Hispanics tend to vote similarly to whites of similar socio-economic strata.

5.13.12 Berman Hispanics Prop. 8


There was less than a 10 percent difference between Hispanics under 29 and whites under 29 on Proposition 8. There was, however, a bigger difference above that age. Overall, Hispanics voted for Prop 8 by 6 percent, which was more than whites at -2 percent, but much less than African Americans at 40 percent.

Lazar Berman is the American Enterprise Institute’s program manager for Foreign and Defense Policy studies. Daniel Berman has written for and Chatham House on electoral politics, and is currently a graduate student at the London School of Economics.

FURTHER READING: Berman also writes “Is Time on Israel’s Side?” “The 2011 Nobel Prize and the Debate over Jewish IQ,” and “Might Israel Know What It’s Doing?” Michael Barone says “Gay Marriage a Tricky Issue for Obama, GOP.” Jonah Goldberg contributes “Romney Feeds the Crocs” and “Throwing in the Towel on the Constitution.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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