Registered voters in California approve of same-sex marriage by the biggest margin in 35 years of tracking, with 59 percent favoring full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, according to a Field Poll released Wednesday.
The poll suggests a significant and accelerating shift is under way among the state’s voters concerning one of the most divisive social issues in the country.
Gay rights activists point to the results as a harbinger of victories to come.
“With 59 percent of Californians now in favor of marriage equality, including nearly half of those over 60, the writing is on the wall,” said Rick Jacobs, founder of the gay rights group Courage Campaign.
The survey asked voters if they approved or disapproved of California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they disapproved, while 59 percent said they approved. Seven percent expressed no opinion.
The California-based Field Research Corp. has been polling the gay marriage issue since 1977. That year the poll results showed 28 percent of California voters approving gay marriage and 59 percent opposed.
The 2012 results show the lowest disapproval rating and highest approval rating since the polls began.
“This division of sentiment is nearly a complete reversal of the findings from the first time The Field Poll began measuring Californians’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage,” the poll report says. The survey of 1,003 registered California voters was conducted between Feb. 2 and 18. It has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
The polling firm also asked voters to select one of three preferences on same-sex relationships. The options were to allow same-sex couples to marry; to allow civil unions only; and to bar any legal recognition.
When the options were first offered in 2006, 36 percent of respondents expressed a preference to allow same-sex marriage. This year, 51 percent chose that option.
In addition, 29 percent favored civil unions, and 15 percent would allow no legal recognition. Five percent of those surveyed expressed no opinion.
The results come as California remains embroiled in court battles over the state’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage. Both a federal judge and a federal appeals court panel have declared the Prop. 8 ban unconstitutional.
In addition, a federal judge in San Francisco recently invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars married couples who are gay or lesbians from receiving the same federal benefits as opposite-sex married couples.
That decision is being appealed to a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit.
Historic data from the Field Poll show a critical shift in California public opinion on gay marriage between 2006 and 2008. During that period, approval jumped from 44 percent to 51 percent – breaking 50 percent approval for the first time.
Despite the poll results, California voters approved Proposition 8 in November 2008 by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent. The ballot initiative amended the state constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between one man and one woman.
Seven million California voters approved the measure; 6.4 million voted against it.
The following year in 2009, the Field Poll recorded public sentiment on gay marriage with 49 percent supporting it and 44 percent opposed.
Mr. Jacobs says the increase in support for gay marriage is tied to the trial and appeals seeking to overturn Prop. 8.
“The public clearly believes that gay and lesbian couples are no different than their straight counterparts,” Jacobs said in a statement. “We love, have families and build community as do all caring people.”
The survey showed that even among groups with majorities opposed to gay marriage, the opposition is diminishing. In 2010, 66 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of conservatives said they opposed gay marriage. In 2012, 55 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of conservatives said they opposed gay marriage.
In 2010, Californians 65 and older opposed gay marriage 42 percent to 51 percent. In 2012, the same group split 45-45 on the issue.