Gay marriage… again

Guido and the Spectator have a story up about a letter from Andrew Hawkins at ComRes accusing David Cameron of misrepresenting polling data over gay marriage. It seems to be an issue that keeps coming back, so I thought I may as well revisit the issue once again and look at what the polls actually say on gay marriage.

Now, to start at the beginning with Andrew’s letter. In Cameron’s original letter he wrote that 10% of Tory voters said legalising gay marriage would make them less likely to vote Conservative, compared to 7% of people who said it would make them more likely. Cameron’s letter claimed the difference between these figures was so close as to not really be significant. The specific factual criticisms Andrew makes about these claims are correct. What Cameron appears to have done is quote figures from page 5 of this poll, which refer to the Labour party, rather than the figures from page 2 of the poll which refer to the Conservative party – the page 2 figures would suggest a rather bigger gap!

However, looking only at the opinions of current Conservative voters seems a rather bizarre thing to do in the first place. The Conservative party, after all, would presumably be interested not only in holding onto current support, but in gaining support from people who are not already supporting them. If you look at the figures overall, 10% of people said gay marriage made them more likely to vote Conservative, as opposed to 13% who made it less likely… the same 3 point gap as in the figures Cameron wrongly quoted.

Gay marriage is a swings and roundabouts issue – it no doubt alienates some people with socially conservative or religious views, it appeals to other people with more socially liberal views. Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the same subject has somewhat more useful crossbreaks. Its overall findings are almost identical to those of ComRes – Ashcroft found 10% said they were more likely to vote Tory as a result of gay marriage, 12% said they were less likely to vote Tory as a result of gay marriage. Both polls found former Con voters saying it made them much less likely to vote Tory. However Ashcroft also provided cross-breaks for people who didn’t support the Conservatives in 2010 or now, but said they might consider doing so. These people said the policy would make them more likely to support a party – but it was a smaller group and by a much smaller margin. So, the polling is consistent in showing the potential loss is bigger than the potential gain… but not by a significant amount.

As it happens, I think “would X make you more or less likely to vote Y” are often useless and misleading questions anyway, as I have ranted about before. They give an issue false prominence, when actually people’s votes will more likely be driven by bigger issues like the economy and perceptions of party competence, secondly people responding to polls are not stupid and tend to use them to register their support or opposition to a policy regardless of whether it affects their vote, third people are poor judges of what actually drives their voting intention, so the bigger impact of policies may be on broader perceptions of party image that are not picked up in polls like this.

In short, what drives voting intention is an extremely complicated question. Political scientists spend whole careers studying it, doing complicated analysis of data sets from British election studies and trying to model it. It would be very nice if we could understand it in a single polling question and I can understand people’s attraction to questions that look as though they do… but it really doesn’t work like that.

Moving on to the second part of the letter, whether polls consistently show people support gay marriage. Cameron says in his letter that “All of the published polls have found that more voters support equal civil marriage – however described – than oppose it”. This isn’t really true either.

Below are a list of polls that essentially asked if people supported gay marriage and gave them a straight yes/no or agree/disagree question:

Ashcroft/Populus? – May 2012. Support 42%, Oppose 31%
ICM/Sunday Telegraph – Mar 2012. Support 45%, Oppose 36%
Populus/Times – Mar 2012. Support 65%, Oppose 27%
ComRes/Independent – Oct 2011. Support 51%, Oppose 34%.
YouGov/Sunday Times – Nov 2012. Support 51%, Oppose 38%
YouGov/Sunday Times – May 2012. Support 51%, Oppose 35%

As you can see, they all show more support for gay marriage than opposition to it, though there is some variation in results and in wording (for example, the Populus one talked about “equal rights” in the question, the Ashcroft one gave a “don’t mind either way” option).

So far Cameron’s statement looks true… but now look instead at the questions below from Angus Reid and YouGov, they gave a three way option – asking if people supported gay marriage, supported civil partnerships but not gay marriage, or opposed both. This gives a slightly different picture.

YouGov/Sunday Times – Mar 2012. Support gay marriage 43%, support civil part only 32%, oppose both 15%
YouGov – Sep 2011. Support gay marriage 46%, support civil part only 28%, oppose both 17%
Angus Reid – July 2011. Support gay marriage 43%, support civil part only 34%, oppose both 15%

There is still a plurality in favour of gay marriage, but if you add together those who support civil partnership but not gay marriage and those who oppose both of them then in some cases there are more people opposed to gay marriage than support it – so when David Cameron says all polls show more people support gay marriage than oppose it however you ask the question, it isn’t really true. If you ask it as a three way question, it suggests that the two way question isn’t necessarily giving the whole picture, and that some of the people who say they support gay marriage would actually be happier with just civil partnerships. I suspect some of this is people not wanting to look bigoted – they don’t want to look homophobic so they say they support gay marriage even though they’d rather just have civil partnerships. Alternatively it may just be simple confusion between gay marriage and civil partnerships.

The broader picture, therefore, is that there is a very large majority of people who support legal recognition of gay relationships, and if people are forced to choose more people support gay marriage than oppose it… but if you don’t force people into that artificial yes-no there is a substantial minority of people who think the half-way house of civil partnership is enough.

Andrew Hawkins’ letter refers to the ComRes/Coalition For Marriage poll that found 70% of people agreed with the statement “Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”. I have written about this before here, and my view remains the same. I think it has been rather over interpreted. Perhaps the logical inference is that anyone agreeing to this statement must be opposed to the laws on marriage being changed so that same sex-couples can marry, but in this case we don’t have to infer, we have lots of other questions in other polls that actually asked directly about gay marriage, so we can be fairly certain that 70% of people are not interpreting the sentence that way.

Andrew speculates that online or offline fieldwork could explain the difference between different polls on gay marriage. In theory I agree with him – people may be embarrassed to admit to unfashionable views in a live telephone interview and may be more willing to openly admit them in an online poll. It would be good to see some directly comparable online and offline questions on gay marriage to see if it’s true in this case. However, almost all the polls I have mentioned above were conducted online anyway, including those by the traditionally telephone based researchers like ICM and Populus, so in this case the difference in results does seem to be mostly down to question wording.

So in summary,

(1) Polls asking if supporting gay marriage would make you more or less likely to vote Conservative show marginally more people saying less likely than more likely, but there are good reasons to be very cautious about questions asked in this format. People are not good at reporting what actually drives their voting behaviour. There is also the effect on the wider image of the Conservative party, whether it is seen as tolerant and in touch with modern Britain, which effects voters but is harder to pick up in polls, not to mention perceptions of Cameron and his leadership (as Lord Ashcroft wrote here, if Cameron did change his mind it wouldn’t just be the policy effect, but whether he would look weak, or like he was flip-flopping). I would be extremely, extremely cautious about drawing any conclusions about whether the net benefit of backing a policy is positive or negative.

(2) Taking the polling as a whole, all polls that ask a direct yes-no or agree/disagree question on gay marriage show that more people support it than oppose it. However, if you give people the option of gay marriage, just civil partnerships or neither, then in some cases marginally more people oppose gay marriage than support it. The only polls that show a majority opposed to gay marriage that I am aware of are those commissioned by groups campaigning against it, which tend to ask slightly different questions about whether marriage should be redefined, rather than asking direct questions about same-sex marriage.

(3) David Cameron wrongly quoted the ComRes poll in his letter, and it isn’t true to say that all polls however asked show that more people support gay marriage than oppose it. However, the broad thrust of his letter is basically right – the polls suggest that the British public are, generally speaking, pretty positive towards gay marriage.