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Future Trends for Same-Sex Marriage Support?

How will support for same-sex marriage change over time? One way to speculate is to break down current support across age groups, and that’s what Justin and I have done, building off of our forthcoming paper.

We plot explicit support for allowing same-sex marriage broken down by state and by age. Seven states cross the 50% mark overall as of our current estimates, but the generation gap is huge. If policy were set by state-by-state majorities of those 65 or older, none would allow same-sex marriage. If policy were set by those under 30, only 12 states would not allow-same-sex marriage.



  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    Interesting how Florida stands out (slightly) among the oldsters.

    Also, could you also separate the views of single and married people? Or people with and without kids? Or would that not make so much sense. Also, I'd like to see a scatterplot of the 50 states, showing support for gay marriage vs. Democratic vote share in the state. That would reveal how much of the pattern is explained by simple red-state, blue-stateness and how much is an extra gay thing.

    And, please, reduce the length of the tick marks and just label the x-axis every 10 percentage points!

    Finally, if these data are from 1994 to 2008, then are you understating the support in 2008? Or are you correcting for that in your model?

  2. I noticed Alaska as a bit of an "outlier" among the states near it, and then Pennsylvania as well, rather than Florida, but I suspect that the explanation for each of these states is the age ratio. Pennsylvania and Florida have older populations than most states and Alaska has a younger population, so the averages for PA and FL will be lower than for states with similar generational attitudes, while the average for AK will be higher than for states with similar generational attitudes.

  3. Could one interpret this chart as showing how support for same-sex marriage decreases with age? Particularly if it is data collected over a period of 10+ years?

  4. RE says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing. A few questions:

    How do you handle the likelihood (or not) of opinions/attitudes changing over time?

    Conventional wisdom says people become more conservative as they age – will the 18 to 29 cohort have the same beliefs in twenty years time?

    How do you know, and how do you account for your (I assume) uncertainty?

  5. John Meunier says:

    Fascinating graph.

    How do opinions of age cohorts tend to track as they advance in age?

  6. William Ockham says:

    Actually, people tend to become slightly more liberal on most social issues as they age. Conventional wisdom is completely wrong. Interpreting a chart like the one above as saying that support for same-sex marriage decreases with age is a mistake that people make all the time, but it has no basis in reality.

  7. Science Boy says:

    Whether good Sir William of razor-related fame, above, is correct or not in general about aging populations, this data as presented here says nothing about how a given population might change as it ages. 10 years is obviously insufficient to track any political changes that may occur over a human lifespan (here on the order of 40 years). All that this data really tells us is that older people today in this country tend to be less supportive of gay marriage than younger people today in this country. We can't reliably even predict whether this trend might reverse itself as the now-young generation becomes older (what you might call the "teenage rebellion" model, where the young generation will simply reflect an inverse ideology w.r.t the older folks, regardless of the particular stances involved).

    Of course, this data doesn't exist in a vacuum; I think it's probably safe to say that 40 years ago, this graph would have shown a significant leftward (ie conservative) shift, since gay rights even in the sense of decriminalization and non-discrimination were only just being fully brought to the table at that point (until 1973, homosexuality was officially recognized as a psychological disorder; the first national gay rights march was in 1979). So in the context of historical/cultural information about the progress of the gay rights movement in general, it's probably safe to say that this data suggests that younger generations find the idea of civic equality between sexual orientations more compelling than those who were raised to see homosexuality as a sin against God and nature. Whether it will continue toward more favorability or stabilize where it is is anyone's guess, but I'd venture to say that we'd see a narrowing opinion gap between adjacent generations before we saw that kind of stabilization. Right now it looks to me, at least, like gay rights are on the rise.

  8. I love the graph — this paper just keeps getting better and better. Here's a statistical question, though: every age group of Utah & Alaska is less supportive of the states just below them — yet the "all" group (on which you've sorted) for those states is more supportive. Is that an odd result related to hierarchical / random effects regression?

  9. I think the graph on page 48 of your paper (with support accelerating over time) might be a better predictor of what's to come. It would be great if you could do one of those graphs for each age group; then we could see whether those in particular age groups are changing as they age and, if so, how quickly. Even better, a graph that answers the question "What happens when a cohort ages?"

  10. Ben Hyde says:

    The steeper the slope the greater the polarization. I wonder if there are other issues where it's even more severe. The wisdom of acting on the majority opinion in such situations is open to debate.

  11. Phil E. Drifter says:

    If you want to marry someone the same gender as you, it's none of my business.

  12. Robert says:

    Just wondering, if you could put a date on it, when do you think attitudes towards interracial marriage would have paralleled those seen towards same-sex marriage today, and do you think that this issue is going to shift faster than the interracial marriage issue in terms of public opinion?

  13. Jim says:

    It's true that people's social views do get slightly more liberal as they age. It only seems as if they get more conservative because compared to the rest of the population, they do. People tend to construct such deep beliefs early in life and rarely change them. When they do, it makes sense that they would move towards the new average given a younger population, rather than moving even further to the right.

  14. thephilosiraptor says:

    So what your graph is saying, and I would dare to be so bold as to say that this applies to MANY things, and not just gay marriage, is that we may finally see the end of some of the very archaic, hyper-christian (oppressive and regressive for short) tendencies of this nation come to an end, most likely by the time the horrid Baby Boomers die off.

    I would venture to say, and please feel free to challenge me on this, because I have a lot to say on it, that many if not most of the challenges this country faces in the coming decades, are caused by, and will largely go away once, all the Baby Boomers are finally dead. This is how your data looks to me, and I obviously couldn't agree more. I long for the day when I will no longer need to support (with underfunded tax programs, i.e. social security, medicare, whatever other benefits they vote for themselves over the next 30 years) crusty old-timers that lived fast and loose when they were my age, fostered a culture of "do as I say, not as I do" and "it's not my responsibility," and then brought me into a world with global climate change, pending global food shortage, TRILLIONS of dollars of debt, awful governance, fast and loose lawsuits, and any number of other awful things about America that I could name; and then had the audacity(!) to tell me that I have to foot the bill and fix it all, "for the children". The world you have left me makes me sad anyone is even having children.

    If you are one of those people (meaning if you were old enough to vote for, lets say, Reagan's first term) do the rest of the country (and the precious children) a favor and either bite the business end of a crocodile, or refrain from voting again, or complaining again, ever. Because all the messes in this country are your messes. And I for one have enough to worry about without your huge population of self-centered bigots interfering with any decisions I would like to see carried out in MY country. It's not yours anymore, because you've screwed it up enough already. Thanks for the inheritance, now let me and the rest of my generation get to work on how to get rid of it without any interference from the geriatrics gallery.

  15. Gabe Small says:

    "every age group of Utah & Alaska is less supportive of the states just below them — yet the "all" group (on which you've sorted) for those states is more supportive. Is that an odd result related to hierarchical / random effects regression?"

    Donald, I think these results are due to demographic differences. An older population will drag the overall average down, and a younger one will buoy it up.

  16. Deb Howlett says:

    The data seems also to confirm that where states have legalized marriage for all (Mass at the top of the list was first) all age groups become more accepting and comfortable with it. That should influence the decision making.

  17. Deb Howlett says:

    The data seems also to confirm that where states have legalized marriage for all (Mass at the top of the list was first) all age groups become more accepting and comfortable with it. That should influence the decision making.

  18. Trevor Stone says:

    thephilosiraptor's claim that all of America's problems will be solved when all of the Baby Boomers die (say, in 30 years) is unlikely to be true in any meaningful sense. Step back to a time when the Baby Boomers would have said the same thing about the Greatest Generation, say the early 1970s. Some of the big problems — nuclear power showdown, the draft, racial integration — are no longer present. But some problems persist — lack of universal health care, gay rights, energy prices — remain relevant. And even if we somehow solve all our current problems in the next thirty years, there will be plenty of problems we haven't thought of yet. Highly-distributed international terrorist networks, unfathomably intertwined financial collapse, and digital privacy and security are issues nobody thought about in 1970s political discourse.

    The natural conservatism of old people (they like things the way they where when they were young) certainly dampens change in a democratic political system, but old people are far from the only factors making it hard to solve problems.

  19. JonBen says:

    Very interesting data.
    I understand the social context of putting a 50% line on a plot like that but I also find it extremely problematic. It implies that issues of social justice ought to be decided by a majority point of view which is a terrifying proposition! The majority who benefit from the oppression of the minority are the last people who should be asked if that oppression should continue. The question of whether or not we should give equal rights to equal people should not be decided by a vote.

  20. Thank God for wester says:

    The under 30 crowd supports school vouchers and social security choice – so those are inevitable too, right?

    When young people get married and learn a bit more about what life is really about, they will modify their views to a fuller appreciation of the importance of institutions like marriage as traditionally defined.
    Those stuck in 'arrested development' mode will not. The real divide is between singles and married people.

    "The question of whether or not we should give equal rights to equal people should not be decided by a vote."
    The assertion that this is about "rights" is totally fraudulent. Marriage is an institution.

  21. Andrew Gelman says:

    I do not think your hypothesis ("When young people get married and learn a bit more about what life is really about, they will modify their views…") is supported by the data. I seem to recall that Lax and Phillips found that, within age groups, support for gay marriage was not changing over time. This suggests a story of generational replacement rather than individuals changing over time.

  22. Kristin says:

    I am married with 3 kids and not only don't care about gays getting married, I don't understand why parents freak out about kids being taught about gay marriage in school. Gays were innundated with heterosexual exposure their whole life and that didn't make them heterosexual. Just because kids might be exposed to it (they probably already know gay people anyway, it's 2009 for crying out loud), doesn't make them gay. It's time to call this bigotry out for what it is, and let gay people get married. It is a GOOD thing that they want to commit themselves and be a family.

  23. Ramat says:

    With Utah, it probably has to do with age distribution — higher proportion of younger people, therefore, even though those younger people are less liberal than younger people in other states, the sheer high numbers of them move the "all" a notch further toward gay marriage.

  24. Core says:

    I think that this primarily reflects the bias and prejudice of the older generations. You often find this as it relates to racial issues, gender issues – and sexual issues too. As a society / culture moves through time, viewpoints and opinions change. Marriage has TRADITIONALLY been viewed as between a man and a woman. But, "tradition" doesn't make something right or wrong. If we went based on tradition, we'd all still be growing our own vegetables & raising our own cattle! Things change from one generation to the next. Eventually gay marriage will be like interracial marriage – accepted by most and judged by a few.

  25. jayne says:

    The averages are not correct for some states. If you recalculate Alaska you will see that their avg is only 43 for example. Redo the math please

  26. Joe says:

    Are you taking into account the average age of the population, jayne? If there are many more young people than old (which, without looking, I believe is the case in AK), then the calculation would be accurate.

    It's Columbia. I'm pretty sure they're calculating averages correctly.

  27. Joe says:

    By that rationale, you'd be implying that the 65+ crowd would have been all for gay marriage when they were 18-29, which I believe we can safely say was absolutely not the case.

    The truth is, there is more exposure to gay people and the gay lifestyle now more than before, when it was seen as a horrible thing that needed to be suppressed. Young people just aren't freaked out by gay people anymore, they see them as everyday people instead of aberrations, and thus see the right for gays to be married as reasonable.