Some respondents may not be telling pollsters how they really feel about same-sex marriage because opponents of same-sex marriage are often labeled “bigots” by same-sex marriage supporters. The desire to avoid being thought of as a bigot may be leading some respondents to tell pollsters they support same-sex marriage when they actually do not.
Polls may be showing greater support for same-sex marriage than actually exists. Due to question wording, priming (the question that comes before the same-sex marriage question), and a social desirability effect (people will not tell a pollster how they really feel if they think their response is unpopular), support for same-sex marriage could actually be lower than what many recent polls indicate, according to political scientist Michael J. New and sociologist Mark Regnerus.
In public opinion polls, question wording matters. When polling questions make reference to “rights” as they ask about support for same-sex marriage, support can be 10 percentage points higher than when a more neutral question is asked, New, assistant professor of political science at University of Michigan – Dearborn, points out for Catholic Vote.
The reason for the difference is that the question wording itself suggests to the respondent how they should think about their answer. Not everyone has well formed opinions on the topic. Many are ambivalent, unsure of how exactly they feel about same-sex marriage. So, suggesting to these respondents that they should think about the issue in terms of “rights” could show greater support for same-sex marriage than actually exists.
This is especially true if respondents are only given two options – support or do not support. When given a third option – “unsure” – one in four 18-to-39-year-olds chose it, Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out for National Review.
There could be a great deal more ambivalence about same-sex marriage than recent news reports indicate because many pollsters are not giving respondents the opportunity to indicate they are ambivalent.
“Priming” is when the question asked before the question of interest suggests to the respondent how they should think about their answer. Also due to ambivalence, priming can cause significant variations in polling outcomes.
The question that comes before the question about same-sex marriage, therefore, could influence polling on same-sex marriage.