As in the country as a whole, the idea of amending the Constitution to ban gay marriages splits Californians largely along party lines.
Among registered Republicans in California, however, 64% supported an amendment. The ratio for Democrats was almost the reverse, with 57% opposing an amendment. Several recent national surveys have found the overall electorate sharply divided, with similar partisan differences.
Although Californians closely resembled the nation as a whole on the question of a constitutional amendment, they appeared to be more willing than people elsewhere in the country to allow gay men and lesbians to receive some form of legal recognition for their relationships.
When asked which of three choices came closest to their own views, 32% of those surveyed statewide said they supported gay marriage, while 38% said they supported civil unions.
Twenty-five percent replied that same-sex couples should be permitted neither to marry nor form legal partnerships. The remaining 5% said they were unsure or refused to answer.
Nationally, by contrast, a recent poll that offered the same three choices found 45% of people saying they opposed both marriage and civil unions for gays. That poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek magazine, found 23% supporting gay marriages and 24% supporting civil unions.
Current California law stops short of civil unions, but allows gay couples to form domestic partnerships that provide many, although not all, of the benefits received by married couples.
Regardless of their views on gay marriage itself, 57% of Californians polled believed that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had done "the wrong thing" when he recently directed officials to begin granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in open defiance of state law. Every region of the state opposed the mayor's move, except the Bay Area, which was almost evenly split.
Typical of the responses of many Californians was that of William Blue, 77, from La Mesa in San Diego County.
He said in a follow-up interview that he strongly opposed Newsom's act of defiance and that he did not support the right of gays to marry. But he felt equally strongly that the issue did not warrant changing the U.S. Constitution. And he said that he felt gay male and lesbian partners deserved the same legal rights as married couples.
"In this country, eventually, people are going to approve of a legal thing for gay couples, and they should. I believe in equal rights," he said. But he quickly added, "I don't think it belongs in politics at all. It should not be a political issue in the Constitution."
The Times poll of 1,936 California residents was taken from Feb. 18 to 22, before President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage. The poll, supervised by Times polling Director Susan Pinkus, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
In addition to the partisan divide, attitudes toward gay marriage varied markedly by age and by education. Of those with college degrees, 57% opposed an amendment. Of those without college degrees, 54% supported it — a near polar opposite. Almost four out of five college graduates supported either gay marriage or civil union. By contrast, only about two in three, or 65%, of those without college degrees did so.
Younger Californians were more inclined to support gay marriage and civil unions. The age difference did not appear on attitudes toward a constitutional amendment, however, where the even divide held fairly constant across all age groups.
But younger respondents were more likely to support gay marriage than their older counterparts. Forty-five percent of respondents 18 to 29 said they favored gay marriage, compared with 32% of those 30 to 44, 31% of those 45 to 64 and 20% of those 65 and older.
Older respondents were more likely to support civil unions, rather than marriages. But the percentage opposing both forms of legal partnership held fairly constant across the age range.
There were large age differences on the question of whether Newsom was right or wrong in San Francisco. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 53% sided with the mayor, compared with 35% of those 30 to 44, 36% of those 45 to 64, and just 22% of those 65 and older.
One of those surveyed, Jon, 29, a serviceman who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution on the Navy base where he lives in San Diego, reflected the view of many younger Californians. He called the gay marriage issue a case of basic civil rights and said Newsom "did the right thing morally, and he didn't hurt anyone."
"Why not? They are just normal people," he said, referring to gay couples who wish to marry. Laws that prevent such marriages are "like black people not being able to marry white people way back. It's just wrong. They're people. Give them the same rights as everyone else."
Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick said that, although the public's opposition to gay marriage might present a problem for his party this year, the support for gay rights positions among younger people suggested that focusing too heavily on the issue could come back to haunt the GOP in the future.
"The generation gaps are huge here. Age has a lot to do with how people view gay rights issues, and the issue of how this is perceived by younger voters could be the thing to watch," Carrick said.
"That is a danger to the Republican Party in the same way that Proposition 187 was a danger to them," he said, referring to the measure pushed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, that was aimed at illegal immigrants and that alienated many Latinos. "Here is another constituency that will become more prominent in the future, and could see the Republicans as opposed to their aspirations."
For now, the partisan divide on gay marriage and the potential for the issue to become a polarizing "wedge" this political season is already evident in the statewide race for the U.S. Senate.
Former California Secretary of State Bill Jones and the other Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in Tuesday's primary have railed against the procession of gay marriages in San Francisco, noting that, in 2000, 61% of Californians approved Proposition 22, which reaffirmed matrimony in California as an act between a man and woman. They demanded to know where the incumbent Democrat, Barbara Boxer, stood.
In response, Boxer, one of the most liberal U.S. senators, has walked a fine line. Last week she declared that she supported current state law granting domestic partnerships — a decision that disappointed some advocates of gay marriage. On Tuesday, she said she opposed Bush's call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, arguing that it would prevent California from continuing to chart its own course.
Although most Democrats opposed such a constitutional amendment, a sizable portion, 36%, did not. Republican political consultant Dan Schnur suggested that those numbers indicated same-sex marriage was the type of moral issue that could splinter Democratic support, particularly if it continued to receive prominent publicity.
The president's backing of the amendment Tuesday "isn't going to turn the die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool liberal voters, but it may help woo some of the so-called Reagan Democrats to the Republican Party," Schnur said.
By the same token, however, 29% of Republicans said they opposed the president's call for the amendment, indicating that the issue could prove divisive on both sides.
Some national surveys, such as a Washington Post-ABC poll released Tuesday, have shown greater intensity among conservative supporters of the amendment than among its liberal opponents.
That is not the case in California, the Times poll suggests. Both among backers and foes of the amendment, similarly large majorities said they held their views "strongly."
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State poll results
Q: Do you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriages?
Favor amendment: 47%
Oppose amendment: 46%
Don't know: 7%
Q: Same-sex couples should be allowed...
to marry: 32%
to form civil unions: 38%
should not be allowed to do either: 25%
don't know 5%
Q: Did the mayor of San Francisco do the right thing by allowing same-sex couples to marry?
Right thing: 37%
Wrong thing: 57%
Don't know: 6%
Source: Times Poll