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Religious Tolerance logo

Same-sex marriage (SSM) in New York State

The strange disagreeing polls: Just how many
NY adults really support same-sex marriage?

Subtitle: Lies, damn lies and statistics

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The problem:

Polls disagree:

  • A group of public opinion polls sponsored by secular groups agree that a significant majority of adults in the U.S. now approve of making marriage available to same-sex couples. Also, support has been increasing over the past seven years: support has risen by about 20 percentage points as opposition has dropped by about the same amount.

  • Two opinion poll sponsored by conservative Christian groups indicate that a significant majority of adults support "traditional marriage." This is the belief that marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman.

At first glance, one might assume that a very serious error (or fraud) was involved.

That is not necessarily so. Both sets of polls may well be accurate. However, they asked different questions of different groups of people, and thus received different answers. The secular polls asked a question like: "Do you think that same-sex marriage should be legalized?" The religiously sponsored polls asked whether the subject agreed with the statement: "I believe marriage should be defined only as the union of one man and one woman." The secular polls were carefully organized to ask questions of a random sampling of adults; one of the religiously sponsored polls used an atypical group of adults.

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Recent national polls sponsored by secular groups:

Over the past year, from 2010-AUG to 2011-MAY, three major national public opinion polls were conducted. The surveys were typically taken among a random sample of 1,000 adults, and the margin of error is ±3.5 percentage points:

% favoring SSM
% opposed to SSM
6 perc. pts
Most support SSM
9 perc.pts
Most support SSM
8 perc. pts
Most support SSM

The Washington Post/ABC News poll is of particular interest, because they conduct the same poll at regular intervals. On 2011-MAR-18, the Washington Post published their data for all of their polls taken between 2003 to 2011.

Washington Post graph 1

From mid 2010 to mid 2011, there have been several developments in the country concerning equal treatment of LGBT persons:

  • Court cases concerning California's Proposition 8 have been active. Prop 8 is the citizen initiative that terminated new SSMs in the state as of Election Day, 2008-NOV.

  • Late in 2010, Congress passed a law that will probably eventually eliminate the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy of the military.

  • A federal judge in Massachusetts declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be in conflict with four separate clauses of the U.S. Constitution. This is the law that deprives married same-sex couples of the 1,100 federal benefits that opposite-sex couples automatically receive.

  • The Obama administration decided in 2011-MAR that it could not in good conscience defend the constitutionality of the DOMA law in court.

  • The public recently became increasingly aware of the dangers of harassment of lesbians and gays. The link between such harassment and subsequent suicides by gay youths had recently been extensively covered by the media.

  • Also in 2011-MAR, Democrats in Congress introduced bills to repeal the DOMA law.

These events may have triggered a lot of discussion and thought concerning equality for LGBTs. This may well have been responsible for the sudden surge in approval of SSM and the sudden decline in opposition of SSM during the 12 months ending in mid-2011.

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Recent New York State polls sponsored by secular groups:

One might assume that support for SSM in New York would be significanly higher than the average for the Nation. Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips of Columbia University found this to be true over the interval that they studied: 1994 to 2009. The published a paper titled "Gay rights in the states: Public opinion and policy responsiveness;" it appeared in the American Political Science Review. 2 A chart showing SSM support for all 50 states is located elsewhere on this web site. Lax and Phillips analyzed all available state-wide polls and found that:

  • Polls taken during 1994 to 1996 showed that New York had the highest support for SSM of any state in the U.S.: 36%.
  • Polls taken during 2003 & 2004 showed that the state had the third highest support in the U.S.: 43%.
  • Polls taken during 2008 & 2009 showed that the state had the fourth highest support in the U.S. 52%.
  • From the years 2003-2004 to 2008-2009, support rose 9 percentage points or 1.8 percentage points per year.
  • During 2008-2009, only adults in Massachusetts -- which legalized SSM in 2004 -- Rhode Island, and Vermont -- which legalized SSM in 2008 -- had higher levels of support for SSM.
  • IF the same rate held until mid 2011, then one might expect support in New York to be a little over 57%.

As it happens, The Sienna College Research Institute conducted a poll in New York State during 2011-APR and found 58% support/36% opposition to SSM, very close to what one would predict. This produces a margin of 22 percentage points! Results for young adults were over 3 to 1 in favor of SSM: 74% support/22% opposition. Support by Roman Catholics -- who had the highest level of support of any religious group in the state -- Jews, other religions and NOTAs (None of the above) were higher than the average for all adults. Only Protestants showed overall opposition (50% opposition to 41% support).

We can probably be fairly confident that the 58% of New York adults support the right of same-sex couples to marry, well confirmed by other polls.

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Result of religiously-sponsored polls:

On 2011-JUN-16, the Alliance Defense Fund, an evangelical Christian legal defense advocacy group released the result of a national poll that they had sponsored. It was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. They found that 62% of Americans believe that "marriage should be defined only as a union between one man and one woman." Further, 53% percent of Americans strongly agreed with the statement. Only 35% disagreed. (N= 1,500. margin of error ±2.5%) 4

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) released a "flash survey" during the days leading up to the Senate vote. 8 They concluded that 57% of New York State adults think "marriage should be only between a man and a woman." Ths is the reverse of what one would expect.

There are some very serious problems with the poll. 5

  • The most serious concern is over the question asked:

    • The fundamental question is not what the respondent thinks that marriage should be. It is rather whether same-sex couples who have made a committment with each other should be denied the basic human right of marriage the person that they love.

  • The sample was heavily biased according to age:
    • Only 7% of the persons sampled were under the age of 40

    • 78% of the persons sampled were 50 years or older

The survey is heavily weighted towards older individuals, who tend to be much less supportive of SSM. The Sienna College Research Institute found that 74% of 18 to 34 year-olds support SSM, but only 63% of those 35 to 54, and 45% of those 55 and above.

  • The sample was not chosen randomly according to marital status:

    • 67% of the respondents were married. The 2010 census showed that only 49% of male adults and 43% of female adults in the state were currently married.

  • Religiosity of the sample was not randomly chosen:

    • 63% of the respondents say they go to a religious service 1 to 5 or more times a month.

    • 43% attend 4 or more times a month.

    • Typical random surveys find that only 40% say that they attend services regularly; 20% actually do attend services.

    • Other surveys show that people who attend religious services are far more likely to oppose SSM

  • The number of respondents is limited; this limits the accuracy of the results:

    • Only 302 registered voters were contacted.

    • The report did not list the margin of error, but it would have been ±5.7%

  • Leading question asked:

    • Question 5 began "The New York state legislature is considering a proposal to change the definition of marriage..." Since the respondents had earlier indicated by an almost 2 to 1 ratio that things in New York had "gotten off the wrong track," the use of a hot-button phrase like "change the definition of marriage" will likely bias the results of any following questions. The question on SSM was #6.

The poll was conducted by QEC Analytics, a Republican pollster. Their goals are somewhat unsettling. In their "What is ... QEV" they state that:

"The soul of our work is the utilization of public opinion data to craft an actionable communications strategy which achieves your public relations or legislative goals. This is why the collection of opinion data is where our work begins — not where it ends." 6

NOM's public relations and legislative goals are to prevent loving committed same-sex couples from being able to marry. They have certainly been supplied with data that will help them achieve their goals. Unfortunately, while the data may be quite accurate for the respondents who were contacted, the respondents bear little resemblence to average New Yorkers.

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Use of unreliable polling data by religious conservatives:

Unfortunately, some religious conservatives appear to have ignored the main polls and and are paying attention only to the 62% value from the NOM sponsored poll. They are promoting it as if it reflects the true beliefs of New Yorkers:

  • Rev. Jason McGuire is executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical Christian group that opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples, abortion access, legalization of gambling, etc. He referred to the approval of the Marriage Equality Act as a failure of the New York Senate " defend authentic marriage." He wrote:

    "Despite today's vote, the people of New York recognize that marriage provides a strong foundation for a thriving society. State senators who have chosen to pursue their own agenda or the agenda of liberal activist groups are ignoring the 62 percent of Americans who believe marriage is [for] one man, one woman, [and] nothing else. 9

  • President Tony Perkins of the fundamentalist Christian advocacy group Family Research Council commented:

    "A clear majority of the people of New York oppose counterfeit 'marriage' ... " 10

  • Roman Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn wrote:
    "More than half of all New Yorkers oppose this legislation. Yet, the governor and the state legislature have demonized people of faith, whether they be Muslims, Jews, or Christians, and identified them as bigots and prejudiced, and voted in favor of same-sex 'marriage'.'" 11

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References used:

  1. "Sandhya Somashekhar and Peyton Craighill, "Slim majority back gay marriage, Post-ABC poll says," Washington Post, 2011-MAR-18, at:
  2. Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips, "Gay rights in the states: Public opinion and policy responsiveness," American Political Science Review, Volume 103 (3), 2009.
  3. Brian Raum, "Married to marriage: 62% of Americans say it’s one man, one woman, nothing else," Alliance Defense Fund, 2011-JUN-16, at:
  4. Ron, "Spinning the data on same-sex marriage," Faith in Public Life, 2011-JUN-17, at:
  5. Davad Badash, "NY Same-Sex Marriage Equality: Anti-Gay NOM Releases Poll Of Old People," The New Civil Rights Movement, 2001-JUN-21, at:
  6. "What is ... QEV," at:
  7. "Nick," "National Organization for Marriage Admits Flawed Methodology, Fails to Justify It," Faith in Public Life, 2011-JUN-22, at:
  8. "New poll: 57% of New Yorkers reject same-sex marriage," National Organization for Marriage, undated,
  9. "New York State Senate Fails to Defend Authentic Marriage." New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, 2011-JUN, at:
  10. Tony Perkins, "Family Research Council Denounces Decision by New York State Legislature to Redefine Marriage," 2011-JUN-24, at:

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Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-JUN-29
Latest update: 2011-JUN-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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