When voters in California, Florida and Arizona approved measures banning same-sex marriage last month, opponents lamented that the country appeared to be turning increasingly intolerant toward gay and lesbian rights. But the latest NEWSWEEK Poll finds growing public support for gay marriage and civil unions—and strong backing for the granting of certain rights associated with marriage, to same-sex couples. (Click here to see the full poll.)
Americans continue to find civil unions for gays and lesbians more palatable than full-fledged marriage. Fifty-five percent of respondents favored legally sanctioned unions or partnerships, while only 39 percent supported marriage rights. Both figures are notably higher than in 2004, when 40 percent backed the former and 33 percent approved of the latter. When it comes to according legal rights in specific areas to gays, the public is even more supportive. Seventy-four percent back inheritance rights for gay domestic partners (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 73 percent approve of extending health insurance and other employee benefits to them (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 67 percent favor granting them Social Security benefits (compared to 55 percent in 2004) and 86 percent support hospital visitation rights (a question that wasn't asked four years ago). In other areas, too, respondents appeared increasingly tolerant. Fifty-three percent favor gay adoption rights (8 points more than in 2004), and 66 percent believe gays should be able to serve openly in the military (6 points more than in 2004).
Despite the recently approved state measures, public opinion nationally has shifted against a federal ban on same-sex marriage. In 2004, people were evenly divided on the question, with 47 percent favoring a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and 45 percent opposing one. In the latest poll, however, 52 percent oppose a ban and only 43 percent favor one. When respondents were asked about state measures, the numbers were closer: 45 percent said they'd vote in favor of an amendment outlawing gay marriage in their states, while 49 percent said they'd oppose such a measure.
A number of factors seem to play a role in swaying people one way or the other. For instance, 62 percent of Americans say religious beliefs play an important role in shaping their views on gay marriage. According to the survey, two-thirds of those who see marriage as primarily a legal matter support gay marriage. On the other hand, two-thirds of those who see it as mostly a religious matter (or equal parts religious and legal) oppose gay marriage. Moreover, the poll found significant differences across generational lines. Essentially, the younger you are, the more likely you are to support same-sex marriage. About half of those aged 18 to 34 back marriage rights, compared to roughly four in 10 among those aged 35 to 64 and only about two in 10 among those 65 and older. The survey also detected a gender gap, with women more likely to support gay marriage than men, 44 percent to 34 percent. Differences by race appear less noteworthy: 40 percent of whites approve of gay marriage, compared to 37 percent of non-whites.
One reason that tolerance for gay marriage and civil unions may be on the rise is that a growing number of Americans say they know someone who's gay. While in 1994, a NEWSWEEK Poll found that only 53 percent of those questioned knew a gay or lesbian person, that figure today is 78 percent. Drilling down a bit more, 38 percent of adults work with someone gay, 33 percent have a gay family member and 66 percent have a gay friend or acquaintance.
On another note, the NEWSWEEK Poll surveyed attitudes toward President-elect Barack Obama. Consistent with other recent surveys, it found broad public approval of his transition (72 percent) and of his cabinet picks (also 72 percent). In fact, Obama is outperforming his two immediate predecessors during similar periods after their elections. In early January 2001, a NEWSWEEK Poll found that 59 percent of respondents favored President George W. Bush's performance, and in late 1992, 62 percent approved of Bill Clinton's handling of the transition.
Americans seem very satisfied with Obama's cabinet choices. Sixty-eight percent approve of his choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, 73 percent support Robert Gates as defense secretary, 63 percent back Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary and 62 percent favor Eric Holder as attorney general. For all the chatter about whether Obama picked too many Washington insiders for his administration, the public doesn't seem all that concerned. Only 23 percent of those surveyed think he should have turned to more Washington outsiders, and only 27 percent say he selected too many veterans of the Clinton administration. An even smaller proportion, 15 percent, say Obama should have chosen more Republicans.
All of which makes for high expectations for the incoming Obama administration. Three-quarters of respondents are hopeful that the president-elect will make progress on the issue that most concerns them: the economy. In addition, solid majorities think Obama will make at least some headway on reducing taxes for the middle class (61 percent), improving conditions for the poor (74 percent) and making health care more affordable and accessible (70 percent). The public is also confident that he'll make strides toward energy independence (77 percent) and a cleaner environment (67 percent). In terms of foreign affairs, 69 percent believe Obama will make progress in bringing U.S. troops back from Iraq without seriously destabilizing that country. A notably smaller group, 53 percent, think he'll make gains in defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
As for the outgoing president, the public remains as sour on him as ever. Sixty-one percent believe that history will judge Bush a below-average president, up from 53 percent in January 2007.