Friday, August 20, 2010

Why the Rhode Island Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

Sorry that it has been so long since i have posted on here, but time has been flying as I have been preparing for school to start up again here in a few weeks. I'm having to review some material before the term begins so that I do not have much difficulty in the coming months; hence my blogging has been rather sporadic lately. I do apologize.

Today I was thinking about the recent poll out of Rhode Island about marriage equality. There is much fanfare within the gay community about this poll - and there well should be - for it shows that Rhode Islanders support gay marriage 59% to 31%. As OnTop Magazine states....
A new poll finds a large majority (59%) of Rhode Islanders support gay marriage.
The poll of 500 registered voters was commissioned by the Boston-based group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).
When asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally?” fifty-nine percent of respondents were in favor and thirty-one percent were opposed.
The same poll conducted in 2008 found 49 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed.
“Rhode Islanders are ready to allow loving, committed same-sex couples to gain the dignity and respect that marriage brings, along with all of the legal rights and obligations that marriage brings,” Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), said.
Though this might be a cause for some rejoicing within the gay community - since over the last two years there has been a 10 point jump in "support" for marriage equality - I would hesitate to call this a breakthrough for Rhode Island.

To be sure, Rhode Island is a very open and progressive state, a state where LGBT forces, such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island, have been able to make great inroads. This being said, we should look at the method in which the poll was conducted, and compare that with another, not well cited poll just completed by the Public Policy Polling - a more liberal leaning polling organization. PPP conducted an poll which asked the question "Do you think Same-Sex Marriage should be legal or illegal?" Here are the results...
Do you think same-sex marriage should be
legal or illegal?
Legal............................................................... 33%
Illegal .............................................................. 57%
Not sure .......................................................... 11%
Why is this result so different than the one also just released by CNN (as I blogged about here), as well as how does this have any impact on the Rhode Island poll? The Christian Institute interviewed the director of PPP, who said this about the differences in the CNN poll and the PPP poll..
Americans are censoring their own conservative opinions on same-sex marriage when asked about it in surveys, according to the Director of a polling group.
Tom Jensen says it would be “frankly impossible” to say that Americans are in favour of same-sex marriage in light of the 31 states which have rejected it in a public vote.
He is a supporter of same-sex marriage, but he said that people may feel “social anxiety” and give pro-homosexual answers when being asked about same-sex marriage in polls.
Mr Jensen’s comments come as some homosexual marriage supporters herald a CNN poll which appears to show narrow support for same-sex marriage in the USA.
But, a poll by Mr Jensen’s Public Policy Polling (PPP) organisation showed only 33 per cent of respondents are in favour of same-sex marriage.
He says a reason for this is the difference in polling methods. PPP uses automated polling, where the respondent presses a button, but CNN and others use ‘live’ interviewers where answers are given to a person.
Mr Jensen said respondents are “more likely to tell their true feelings on an automated poll where there’s no social anxiety concern than to a live interviewer who they may be worried about the reaction of”.
He then backs up his concept of "social anxiety" when it comes to gay marriage by showing a historical example...the differences in PPP polling over the Maine gay marriage referendum vs. the national traditional live interviewer polling.
PPP accurately predicted the result of a November vote on same-sex marriage in the US state of Maine.
Its polling showed that voters would reject same-sex marriage by a margin of four per cent. But other polling, done ‘live’, showed it would be supported by up to eleven per cent.
Citizens in Maine voted to reject same-sex marriage by around six per cent.
Though I, like any supporter of marriage equality, do like seeing polls that show that more and more Americans are supporting the concept, I also recognize the benefits of Mr. Jennings approach. I buy the concept of "social anxiety" when it comes to issues such as discrimination. No one likes to appear to be discriminatory, so therefore when they are talking with a live person and assert a discriminatory point of view, the are afraid of the interviewers reaction, and give a skewed answer. An interesting concept that I will have to do alot more research on.

So how does this apply to the recent Rhode Island poll? Because the RI poll was conducted in the traditional manner with live interviewers. Because the people of RI are generally progressive, it would not sit well with them for a live interviewer to know how they truly felt on the subject. Thus, they would be more likely to "support" same sex marriage. So though I can applaud the "trend" that we are seeing in Rhode Island, I am not one to jump on the automatic assertion that the majority of Rhode Islanders support gay marriage.

A copy of the RI polls press release is below.

Rhode Island gay marriage poll 8/18/2010

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