Monday, February 1, 2010

After a break for the Holidays

Welcome back! Well, you might have not gone anywhere, but I did - at least in the sense that the academic cycle with it semester break in December and early January meant I spent most of my time getting ready for the classes I am teaching this semester at Rutgers. After teaching 10 years at the University of Iowa, I should be an old hand at this, but it is always different adjusting to a new place.

The result is not a lot of work on polling here at Eagleton since our post election survey. But we did spend a lot of time looking at the results on Gay Marriage in particular, given the debacle in the NJ Legislature over the issue. Our polling (and other polling over the past few years) makes clear that the Democrats failed a major constituency by not moving the issue forward before the election. While New Jerseyans are split pretty evenly on support for gay marriage overall, a small plurality appears to be in favor. More importantly, as we showed, for most New Jerseyans this is not a burning issue. For some on both sides, of course, it is, and we saw that in the intensity of those at the statehouse during the debate. But it seems pretty clear that despite the intensity of a relatively small group of opponents, had the bill passed, I suspect there would have been no long term political consequences for those who supported it.

With the bill's defeat it will be interesting to see if there now are consequences, in the form of primary challenges or withdrawal of financial support against some of the Democrats who refused to support it. There are certainly deep frustrations on the part of supporters who clearly would have had the votes to pass this in the legislature before the election of Chris Christie as governor.

The funny thing is that we mostly heard two reasons for opposing the bill from those who might have voted in favor originally. One was that the election of Christie signaled that voters wanted more conservative government and that somehow this was a sign against social issues like gay marriage. There is, of course, no support whatsoever for this position. Marriage equality was never an issue in the election and I would venture to say no one really voted on that issue. Christie's election says nothing about support for this issue. In fact, our Rutgers-Eagleton Poll showing plurality support was done AFTER the election. And our numbers were not much different from those of polls over the past couple years. The election of Christie did nothing to change attitudes on this issue.

The other thing we heard a lot was that Catholics - who represent the largest single religious denomination in the state - oppose gay marriage and therefore legislators with large Catholic populations felt they had to represent the wishes of their constituents. But the reality is that Catholic voters support marriage equality in our poll, 48% - 40%. Ironically, perhaps, it is protestant voters who oppose, 55% - 34%, driven by heavy opposition among evangelical protestants. Legislators may have been agreeing with the position of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but their Catholic constituents are a different matter.

In any case, the question seems likely to head back to the courts. When the NJ Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality and sent it to the legislature, it made clear that it expected true equality. Given the testimony of many at the Senate hearing, it may well be that the Court will ultimately do like the Iowa Supreme Court and simply rule the civil unions are not equal enough.

We are now working on another Eagleton Poll for later this semester, focusing of course on the new Christie administration and what should be done to address the challenges the state faces. More on that in the coming weeks.

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