It’s been a few weeks since Governor O’Malley signed the historic Civil Marriage Protection Act, which if allowed to stand, would legalize marriages for same-sex couples effective January 2013. But it may not stand because of a provision in the Maryland Constitution that enables opponents who can muster the required number of signatures (55,736 in this case) within specified timeframes to put the law before the voters in a referendum this November in an effort to overturn it.
This has been expected. When it comes to social justice and equal rights, nothing is easy. We are placing the battle to win the hearts and minds of Maryland voters in the hands of a coalition called Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
This organization, which was born last July following the near-collapse of Equality Maryland, commissioned a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling of 600 voters March 5-7 to see where we stand. The question asked by the pollsters: “The state legislature recently approved a law allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry in Maryland, and there is likely to be a statewide referendum in the November election on whether to keep the law. If the election were held today, do you think you would vote for or vote against the recently-approved law allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry?”
A week after the jubilant signing ceremony, Marylanders for Marriage Equality announced the results of the poll that revealed 52 percent of the sample of registered voters in Maryland would “definitely” or “probably” vote in favor of the state’s same-sex marriage bill while 44 percent would “definitely” or “probably” oppose it. The poll’s margin of error is +/- 4 percent.
On the surface that is good news, and marriage equality proponents should rejoice that the trend for acceptance of marriage equality has been moving steadily albeit slowly into favorable terrain. But one must be cautioned not to celebrate the poll’s results just yet; a reality check is needed.
For one thing, the poll’s margin of error means that the vote could be a 56-40 advantage, a 48-48 split, or something in between, so no conclusions can be definitively drawn just by the raw numbers. My gut says it is more likely to be the latter scenario where the results are extremely tight. And with 4 percent “unsure,” no one knows how that will break.
Furthermore, there is a theory that on social policy, some respondents to such questions tend to offer a more progressive answer and then vote differently in the privacy of a voting booth. This phenomenon is called “social desirability bias”—a tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others. They do so because they may feel under pressure to provide an answer that is deemed to be more publicly acceptable or “politically correct.” If this actually occurred during the survey, the numbers in favor of marriage equality would be reduced.
Adding to my concern is the fact this poll is just a snapshot of how the voters felt during the March 5-7 period. One cannot predict if and how the attitudes could shift come November. The opposition, mainly the National Organization for Marriage, faith-based organizations and other groups, are raising significant sums of money to saturate the airwaves and print media as well as producing hand-outs to scare voters.
They will use the same tactics employed in their previous victories where such measures have been brought to the voters: the threat that same-sex marriage will be taught in the schools and influence children. Of course, there is no reality to base these accusations but that doesn’t matter. It works.
Unless this propaganda is offset by an opposing message by marriage equality proponents, the support indicated in March will likely erode by November. And that 4 percent “unsure” category could be decisive in what appears to be a tight vote. That’s who the opponents are targeting.
And then there is the matter of who will actually vote in November. The PPP poll questioned registered voters, not likely voters. Several factors will be in play that are unfavorable in defeating the referendum. Fueled by the rhetoric from their pastors, church-going Protestant African-Americans generally oppose marriage for same-sex couples. They will vote in higher numbers than normal because of this particular issue and the fact President Obama will be on the ballot. African-Americans in Maryland constitute the second highest percentage of a state population in the country.
Moreover, older citizens who tend not to support marriage equality vote in a higher proportion than the general population. And younger voters who are for the most part supportive, participate less when it comes to voting. Yes, Obama brought out more young voters in 2008. Is that same excitement for the youth present in 2012? Then there are the anti-immigration folks who will come out to vote against the Dream Act. They’re not on our side either.
One other problem with the poll results is the risk that people will think that because of the reported 8-point spread, a positive outcome is in the bag. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last thing that marriage equality proponents need is complacency.
This battle is going to be a long, hard, expensive slog. The entire community and allies including supportive elected officials will have to dig in and help in every way possible. And we will need a major effort to engage religious African-Americans, Catholics and seniors unlike the experience in California during the Prop 8 referendum.
If we can raise large sums of money, if we do the hard work of reaching out and persuading voters, if we want to win this as much as the opponents, we can eke this out.
But right now, despite the current poll numbers, we are definitely the underdogs in this referendum.