Mark Regnerus had a thoughtful article this Wednesday on public attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Public opinion is far more nuanced than many observers realize. As Regnerus points out, slight variations in the wording of survey questions, the population being surveyed, or the preceding questions can cause significant changes in the results. He is also correct that when asked about controversial issues, many respondents will offer the response they feel is the most socially acceptable, regardless of their actual opinion. Regnerus shows that mainstream media have emphasized polls that show substantial approval for same-sex marriage, while offering scant coverage of surveys showing only mixed support.
The media have shown a similar bias when covering surveys dealing with abortion. Surveys asking people to describe themselves as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” typically receive lots of media coverage, in part because, until a few years ago, the pro-choice position usually received plurality support. Surveys that offered a range of possible positions received less coverage, in part because they showed that public attitudes toward abortion were more nuanced. And survey research firms only rarely ask about broadly supported incremental pro-life laws. For instance, since the mid-1990s, Gallup has asked the “pro-life or pro-choice” question over 35 times but has asked about asked about waiting periods before abortions only three times and about parental-involvement laws four times.
In actuality there was no significant decline in pro-life sentiment. Polls conducted by Rasmussen — which, unlike Gallup, contacts only likely voters — consistently show lower pro-life sentiment. The postelection Rasmussen poll showed a decline in pro-life sentiment by about three percentage points, near the margin of error. Of course, this received scant coverage from the mainstream media.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.