A new Politico poll shows similar results as other polls in terms of the public’s support of marriage equality, but it paints an incomplete picture because of a common trap in how it asked its questions. The poll found that 40 percent of people support marriage equality and an additional 30 percent support civil unions, for a total of 70 percent supporting some form of legal recognition of same-sex couples. But this result alone does not address how many individuals are willing to actually support for marriage equality, and it irresponsibly sidesteps the inferior nature of civil unions.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with inviting survey respondents to offer support for civil unions. In certain states like Colorado, civil unions are an important alternative to advance, because overturning the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is currently an inaccessible goal. But New Jersey’s Civil Union Review Commission found that the “separate but equal” unions were, in fact, not treated equally as the law suggested they should be. States that passed civil unions in 2011 like Illinois, Delaware, and Rhode Island, are already looking forward to replacing them with full marriage equality, possibly as soon as next year. Civil unions may have provided a “better than nothing” alternative a decade ago to help public sentiment adjust to recognizing same-sex couples, but as public opinion has swiftly shifted, they’ve quickly come to represent a consolation prize short of full equality.
The pitfall of Politico’s poll is the absence of an opportunity to weigh in on marriage equality without the alternative of civil unions. As a result, the possibility and desirability of civil unions are artificially inflated, even though they are not on the agenda in most states nor at the federal level. In turn, anti-gay conservatives can reframe the poll’s plurality for marriage equality as a majority against marriage equality. Rather than celebrate the 70 percent who support some sort of legal recognition for same-sex couples, they highlight the 54 percent who do not prefer marriage equality, advancing a narrative that the true end goal of the marriage equality movement does not have the momentum it’s been shown to have. One blogger has already taken this approach with this poll, and Fox News and other anti-equality outlets have pulled this rhetorical trick before, so there may be more to come.
Politico also asked if respondents approve of President Obama’s performance on the issue of “gay marriage” — which notably is not the preferred rhetoric of the LGBT movement — and found that 48 percent approve, 42 percent disapprove, and 10 percent are unsure. Though the President supports marriage equality, this is question is still vague and essentially not very meaningful, but at least comes slightly closer to measuring what many other polls have found: that a clear majority of Americans consistently supports same-sex marriage.