The Wrong Side of the Majority

Thom Tillis says most North Carolinians are against gay marriage. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Thom Tillis

Thom Tillis spends seven seconds not in heaven.

Photo by Davis Turner/Reuters

Thursday night, in a debate for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat, Republican nominee Thom Tillis was asked about the state’s constitutional amendment against gay marriage. The amendment, enacted through a 2012 ballot measure, has been tied up in court. Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, said he would defend the amendment because “60 percent of the people of North Carolina” voted for it.

If 60 percent of North Carolinians favored the amendment, you’d expect Tillis to say more. He’s in a neck-and-neck race against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who opposes the amendment. He needs votes, and grabbing hold of a 60 percent issue is a great way to get them. Instead, Tillis changed the subject. Hagan, given a minute to address the amendment, used her time to criticize it. Tillis, given the same allotment, brushed past the question in seven seconds. He called it a distraction and used his time to talk instead about economic policy, voter ID laws, and Hagan’s committee attendance record.

Why would a politician duck what he calls a 60 percent issue? Because it isn’t a 60 percent issue. North Carolina’s marriage amendment never had 60 percent support. Today, it doesn’t even have majority support. Public opinion there, as everywhere else, is moving toward gay marriage. And Republicans know it.

Tillis’ verbatim answer, before he scampered away, was that “28 months ago, 60 percent of the people of North Carolina decided that they wanted to define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.” Each element of that sentence is misleading. Let’s take it apart.

Start with the core claim that “60 percent of the people of North Carolina” voted for the amendment. As WRAL’s Mark Binker and Laura Leslie point out, the state has nearly 10 million people.* Some 6.6 million are registered to vote. About 2.2 million voted on the amendment, which was put on the ballot not in the general election but in the primary, when fewer people—by and large, those who are more partisan—go to the polls. Altogether, 1.3 million people voted for the amendment. That’s 61 percent of those who showed up, but it’s only about 20 percent of the state’s voters. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, it’s the lowest turnout, in percentage terms, for any anti-gay-marriage ballot measure passed in the South.

You can argue that turnout doesn’t matter, because people who didn’t show up forfeited their say. But in a general election, many of those people will show up. The last time Hagan was on the ballot, in 2008, more than 4 million voters turned out. That’s about twice the size of the electorate that passed the gay marriage amendment. If the turnout for Hagan’s re-election bid is similar, the additional 2 million voters will almost certainly be younger than those who voted on the 2012 amendment, since that primary electorate was skewed toward old people. That’s bad news for Tillis. In North Carolina, as in every other state, young people are twice as likely as old people to support gay marriage.

Would this broader electorate support the amendment? Not if they find out what’s in it. In his 7-second answer, Tillis said people who voted for the amendment did so “to define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.” But that’s not what the amendment said. It said “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” In other words, civil unions and domestic partnerships are also forbidden.

At the time of the referendum, two survey organizations—Elon University and Public Policy Polling—repeatedly asked North Carolina voters to choose among three positions. One position was “full marriage rights for same-sex couples” (or “gay couples should be allowed to legally marry”). The second position was “I oppose any legal recognition for same-sex couples” (or “there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship”). The middle option was “civil unions or partnership for same-sex couples, but not full marriage rights” (or “gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry”).

In seven samples taken over the course of three years, the number of polls in which a majority chose gay marriage was zero. The number of polls in which a majority opposed legal recognition was also zero. In every survey, 55 percent to 60 percent of respondents chose either gay marriage or the middle option. Support for the no-recognition position ranged from 29 percent to 42 percent.

Two polls tested what would happen if voters understood the ballot language. One poll asked people whether they favored an amendment that “would prevent any same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, or civil unions.” Thirty-two percent supported that proposal. Sixty-one percent opposed it. Another poll asked, “If you knew that Amendment One banned both gay marriage and civil unions, would you vote yes or no?” Thirty-eight percent said yes. Forty-six percent said no.

If the amendment were put on the ballot this fall, it wouldn’t get anywhere near 60 percent. In the last year, the best showing I can find for opponents was a PPP survey taken six months ago. When asked, “Do you think same-sex marriage should be allowed, or not?” 53 percent of voters said it shouldn’t. From there, it’s all downhill. A Kaiser/New York Times poll taken about the same time asked voters whether “it should be legal or not for same sex couples to marry.” Forty-nine percent said no. Last month, an American Insights survey asked whether “marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.” Voters split evenly, and those younger than 50 leaned in favor. In an Elon poll taken last month, a plurality of likely voters, as well as registered voters and nonvoters, supported gay marriage.

The bigger problem for Tillis is that all these polls are moving in the wrong direction. Even the one that showed 53 percent for his side was down 5 points in the last two years. He says the referendum was just 28 months ago, as though that’s a short time. But on this issue, it’s an eternity.

From March 2009 to March 2012, the percentage of North Carolinians who favored full marriage rights for same-sex couples rose from 21 to 38, as measured by Elon surveys. The percentage who opposed any legal recognition for these couples dropped from 44 to 29. Activists and politicians who opposed gay marriage were in a race to codify their position before the tide of public opinion buried them. They succeeded.

Since then, the tide has rolled on. In PPP’s surveys, the percentage of North Carolinians who favor gay marriage, even when offered civil unions as an alternative, has climbed 9 points. The percentage who oppose any legal recognition has dropped 7 points. Last year, 13 percent of residents in the state said they had changed their minds on this issue. By a factor of 8-to-1, the switchers had embraced same-sex marriage.

That’s why Tillis ducked the question Thursday night. For Republican politicians, gay marriage is no longer a 60 percent issue. It’s a seven-second issue. Even in North Carolina.

*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: This article originally misidentified Laura Leslie are Laurie Leslie. (Return.)