Pew on “Social Issues”

Ah yes, it’s the sort of polling headline that would warm the cockles of many libertarians’ hearts: “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage, than in 2008, 2004.” But this longitudinal survey from the fine folks at Pew is a bit more complicated than it looks at first glance.

Yes, it shows the percentage of Americans saying it’s more important to “Protect the right of Americans to own guns” than to “Control gun ownership” achieving a 49%-45% plurality, reversing the usual findings from 1993 until 2008. But look at the wording, and think about how the debate over guns has evolved during the last few years. Progressives worried about guns (including the Democratic Party, which included a statement of support for the Second Amendment in its 2004 platform for the first time) have largely shifted from a “gun control” to a “gun safety” or “time, place and manner” argument. Relatively few people in mainstream politics these days are talking about “controlling gun ownership,” so it’s perhaps surprising that priority ranks as high as it does in the current poll.

The big “gun” issue at the moment, of course (outside those wingnut circles where it’s a common belief that Barack Obama is secretly plotting to confiscate every firearm in America) involves the deployment of firearms by private citizens, thanks to the spread of conceal-carry and “Stand Your Ground” laws. To put it another way, I’m a lot less concerned about the number of Americans who keep hand guns in their homes to defend themselves against intruders (so long as they keep them away from their kids) than I am about those who keep a roscoe under the seat of their vehicles and drive around looking for undesirables to confront; that’s true whether or not it turns out George Zimmerman was a fantasy-cop vigilante looking for trouble or just a sad-sack neighborhood watch volunteer who got stomped and used deadly force to protect himself. I’d like to see some polling on those kind of issues.

The shift Pew shows on marriage equality is a lot less ambiguous:

47% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 43% are opposed. In 2008, 39% favored and 51% opposed gay marriage, based on an average of polls conducted that year. In 2004, just 31% supported gay marriage, while nearly twice as many (60%) were opposed.

Moreover, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage. In the current survey, 22% say they strongly support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally; an identical percentage (22%) strongly opposes gay marriage. In 2008, there was about twice as much strong opposition to as strong support for gay marriage (30% vs. 14%).

In 2004, when the issue was widely thought to have increased turnout among socially conservative voters in several key states, 36% strongly opposed gay marriage while just 11% strongly favored it.

While opposition to same-sex marriage has dropped among every demographic category, the partisan gap is definitely widening. 68% of Republicans still oppose it, and 40% do so strongly. Opposition to marriage equality among independents and Democrats has dropped to 38% and 31%, respectively. African-Americans now oppose same-sex marriage more than whites (49% of black respondents oppose it, 27% strongly), but it’s not as though they are in danger of breaking to the GOP over this issue.

It didn’t make any headlines, but Pew also found that support for legal abortion, which some surveys a couple of years ago (including Pew’s) showed suffering some erosion, is right back to the levels we’ve seen in recent years. In the latest survey 53% said abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, while 39% said it should be illegal in all or most circumstances. Independents and white Catholics are split almost exactly along those same lines as well, though Hispanic Catholics as a whole are more likely to oppose legal abortion, and white evangelicals are in something of a world of their own (though even in that group, 31% support legal abortion).

The survey also has the usual findings about how most Americans care more about the economy than about social issues, though just over half of Republicans say abortion is “very important” to their voting tendencies, and in an interesting wrinkle, nearly half of Democrats say the same about “birth control.” In a separate recent Pew survey, nearly as many voters cite birth control as “important” as abortion, and among them Obama has a 19 point lead over Romney. This represents an interesting undertow to the efforts of Republicans to demonize the contraception coverage mandate and to shut down Planned Parenthood.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.