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Poll shows shift toward ‘no’ on gay-marriage ban, but is reversal real?

A new poll shows that since late January voters’ opinions have swung 10 points toward rejection of the referendum.

Opposition to the gay marriage-ban amendment has grown in Minnesota since President Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage.

That hopey-changey vibe you might have picked up on Tuesday? That would have been local gay-rights advocates sending a collective wave of gratitude to President Barack Obama.

A new poll reveals that public opinion among Minnesotans regarding amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage has undergone a reversal since late January, with voters’ opinions swinging a full 10 points toward rejection of the referendum.

North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling (PPP) did not ask voters whether Obama’s announcement a month ago that he supports gay marriage factored in to their change of heart, but local poll-watchers are certain.

According to the new data [PDF], 49 percent of voters oppose the idea of inserting a gay marriage ban into the constitution, up from to 44 percent four months ago [PDF]. Support for the ballot question, meanwhile, has fallen from 48 percent to 43 percent.

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A similar reversal occurred regarding the number of voters who believe same-sex marriage should be legal, with support rising from 43 percent to 47 percent and opposition falling from 47 percent to 42 percent.

Other tidbits from the survey: A whopping 58 percent support voter ID, Gov. Mark Dayton has a 49 percent approval rating compared to Capitol Republicans’ 21 percent.

PPP describes itself as a Democratic firm. In dissecting its numbers, however, other pollsters have said if anything it errs on the conservative side.

Predictably mixed reactions

Do the numbers mean the amendment is headed to ballot-box defeat? Reaction locally was decidedly mixed, with the campaigns for and against the ban striking predictable poses.

Minnesotans United for all Families, the vote-no coalition, called the news proof its strategy of fostering grassroots conversations was working. “But there are still five months until election day, and between now and November we have a long road ahead,” its prepared statement said. “We know that the polls will go up and down between now and then, and that’s why we will continue to take this conversation to every corner of our state.”

Chuck Darrell, spokesman for the vote-yes umbrella group, Minnesota for Marriage, dismissed the survey.  “We’ve been polling the amendment for over a year and our most recent poll shows the race unchanged with support for the amendment in the mid‐50s,” his statement read. “And, every time the voters get a chance to vote on marriage, they affirm marriage as between one man and one woman.”

As chair of the University of Minnesota’s Communications Studies Department, Ed Schiappa has written extensively on same-sex marriage and public opinion. The data should be encouraging to the vote-no camp, he said, “But I’m a long way from being ready to pop the cork.”

Gap between stated plans and actual vote

The gap between the number of voters who tell pollsters they plan to vote no and those who actually do is typically 7 percentage points, he noted. [PDF] Research reveals that this is for two reasons: “Social desirability bias,” a voter’s reluctance to express anti-gay sentiments to a pollster; and voter confusion about what yes and no votes actually do.

North Carolinians voted in May to amend their state’s constitution to outlaw gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, even between heterosexuals. Like Minnesota, North Carolina already had a law prohibiting same-sex marriage on the books; supporters of the constitutional amendments have said they are needed to stop “activist judges” from overturning those laws.

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It’s not clear that many voters in either state understand the basics. A PPP survey conducted two days before the North Carolina vote revealed that only 46 percent of that state’s residents realized the proposal did more than ban gay marriage. Another 6 percent believed that a yes vote would legalize gay marriage; 20 percent reported having no idea what the amendment would do.

With a barrage of effective “scare ads” expected to begin airing here in the fall, leaving little time for rebuttal, Schiappa believes the vote-no camp needs to be polling at least 10 points ahead to exhale.

Darrell, too, pointed out that the firm itself has noted the discrepancy between the numbers reported in its polls and actual balloting.

‘A tipping point’

The president of Decision Resources, a Minneapolis survey firm specializing in public policy, Bill Morris is more confident about the data, which jibes with his local research: “Basically, it confirms everything we’ve seen in our smaller surveys.

“We’re at what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a tipping point,” said Morris, who runs the firm with his wife, Diane Morris. “You’re not getting so-called reflex opinions. You’re getting people who are actually moving on the issue.”

Since its passage at the Legislature last year, opinions about the ballot question among Minnesotans who identify as solidly DFL or Republican have varied little. Advocates on both sides of the debate have long understood that they will need to win over a “tight band” of voters who are undecided or whose opinions, like Obama’s, are “evolving.”

Support for an amendment among non-white voters fell from 51 percent to 48 percent, while the number who said they believe gay marriage should be illegal fell from 53 percent to 45 percent. Independent voters shifted even more dramatically, from 50 percent in support to 54 percent opposed.

‘Groups in transit’

PPP, which uses a robo-calling technique that is thought to be as reliable as traditional interviewing, did not ask respondents about race and ethnicity beyond asking them to identify as white or non-white.

But according to Morris, other surveys have identified discrete “groups in transit,” including African-Americans — and in particular middle-aged blacks — and Catholic independents who are offended by Archbishop John Nienstedt’s activism on the issue.

(In North Carolina, where the NAACP and many black leaders came out strongly against Amendment 1, support among African-Americans narrowed from 71 percent in November to 55 percent the weekend before the vote. The election took place before Obama’s televised statement.)

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The Obama factor

In Morris’ view, the change in opinion in Minnesota has its roots in both retail and wholesale politics. The retail: The personal outreach strategy being employed by the vote-no forces, who doubtless understand that familiarity with gays and lesbians and their families is what tips the balance for many.

The wholesale? Obama’s proclamation.

“There are a lot of people who made their minds up early on this one,” Morris said. “To unstick people it takes something absolutely monumental, like Obama coming out in favor of same-sex marriage.”