Can You Trust the Polling on Proposition 8?

Last week's Field Poll in California found that voters were likely to reject the state ballot amendment in November that intends to prohibit gay marriage. But are voters really telling pollsters the truth about how they'll vote once they're in the booth? A polling expert examines the numbers and the opposition's claim that the Field Poll just isn't accurate.

BY Advocate.com Editors

September 22 2008 11:00 PM ET

Do voters lie to pollsters when asked their opinion on banning same-sex marriage? That seems to be the question in California, where a survey last week found voters rejecting a proposed statewide ban on gay marriage by a decisive 17-point margin. Conservatives have countered with a study claiming that voters -- driven by “political correctness” -- substantially underreport their support for banning gay marriage to pollsters.

But a careful analysis of polling data on marriage amendments and election results from previous races indicates that if any such reluctance exists with regard to same-sex marriage initiatives, it is small -- about two points on average since 1998. In 2006 it was effectively zero. In other words, if the election were held today, polling trends suggest that California voters would reject the marriage ban -- known as Proposition 8 -- by a healthy margin.

The Field Poll in question was conducted September 5-14 and found likely voters opposed to the ban by 55% to 38%, with 7% undecided. The poll is the second in as many months indicating that a majority of the state’s voters intends to vote no on Prop. 8. (If passed, the measure would reverse a May ruling by the California supreme court that gave same-sex couples the right to marry.)

The response by Prop. 8’s sponsors? Not so fast, they say. The group ProtectMarriage.com released a study last week that compared preelection polling with actual Election Day results in 26 states that have voted on same-sex marriage initiatives since 1998. They contend that many survey respondents who supported the bans misreported their preferences to pollsters as undecided or even opposed, and conclude that support for these measures has been underestimated by an average of seven percentage points.

But my analysis of the ProtectMarriage.com data suggests that the study’s methodology overstates the gap between polls and election results with calculations that implicitly allocate undecided survey respondents to the “oppose” category. Reanalyzing the data shows that the number of voters who are reluctant to share their true feelings about same-sex marriage is small -- and is certainly not on the rise. Since 1998, the gap between polled support for marriage bans among decided voters and Election Day results has averaged only 2.2 percentage points. In 2006, the gap declined to less than a point in the seven states holding initiatives for which data are available.

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