The above graph shows the estimated support, by state, for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a gay rights bill that the Senate will be voting on this Monday. The estimates were constructed by Kate Krimmel, Jeff Lax, and Justin Phillips using multilevel regression and poststratification.
Check out that graph again. The scale goes from 20% to 80%, but every state is in the yellow-to-red range. Support for a law making it illegal to discriminate against gays has majority support in every state. And in most states the support is very strong.
And here’s the research paper by Krimmel, Lax, and Phillips, which begins:
Public majorities have supported several gay rights policies for some time, yet Congress has responded slowly if at all. We address this puzzle through dyadic analysis of the opinion- vote relationship on 23 roll-call votes between 1993 and 2010, matching members of Congress to policy-specific opinion in their state or district. We also extend the MRP opinion estimation technique so that it can be used more often for district-level analysis. While policy-specific opinion is a very strong determinant of roll-call voting, we find large gaps in responsiveness and biases in policymaking. Though opinion strongly influences white male Democrats, black lawmakers and white female Democratic lawmakers generally support gay rights and Republicans consistently oppose them, regardless of constituent preferences. We also unpack polarization over time, showing Democrats moving into and Republicans out of sync with their constituents. This yields a broader, deeper picture of the opinion-vote relationship.
For example, here’s the story of the 2007 House vote on employment non-discrimination:
The pattern is clear: as far as can be estimated, majorities supported the nondiscrimination bill in nearly every district, but only half the congressmembers voted for it.
For Monday’s vote, Lax and Phillips write:
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) . . . was last brought to a vote in the Senate in 1996, failing by only a single vote (49-50). . . . This time around, success will require the proponents of LGBT rights to secure the votes of at least 60 senators, enough to overcome a likely Republican filibuster. . . .
Will ENDA receive the necessary votes? If senators listened to their constituents, the bill would pass overwhelmingly. . . . Who should the proponents of ENDA target for the 60th vote? Our opinion estimates suggest that the top target should be Sen. Ayotte of New Hampshire. Estimated support for ENDA in her state is a whopping 77% and strong opposition only about 5%. Of all Republican senators who are not already committed to supporting the bill, her constituents would be most supportive of a “yes” vote. Other top targets (based entirely on constituent opinion) ought to be senators Toomey of Pennsylvania, Johnson of Wisconsin, and McCain and Flake of Arizona. Support for ENDA is 74% in each of these states. . . .
P.S. Two issues came up in the comments that I’d like to address:
1. Ashok wrote: “I suspect that if the first graph was weighted by how much voters care, it would start to look a lot more like the actual graph.” The suggestion is that voters who oppose gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than voters who support gay rights. It is possible, but I have no particular reason to believe it—if anything, given the nature of the issue, I’d be inclined to believe the opposite, that supporters of gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than do opponents. And you’d need a huge huge difference in intensity to overcome the huge disparities in support that we see from the polls. Finally, consider the estimates reported by Lax and Phillips:
Estimated support for ENDA in [New Hampshire] is a whopping 77% and strong opposition only about 5%.
If anti-gay-rights voters really cared so much about the issue, I’d think we’d see much more than 5% in the “strong opposition” category.
2. Mark, Shaun, and Ashok point out that Republican primary voters are far more conservative than the average person. Sure, that could be part of it, on the other hand Democratic primary voters are far more liberal, yet Lax and Phillips have consistently found lack of congruence in certain issues comparing state-level attitudes vs. policy. I guess what I’m saying here is that, yes, primary electorates (and, more generally, political activists) are definitely a key part of the story, but it’s more complicated than a simple counting of the preferences of a majority of a majority.