Most Nebraskans now favor legal recognition of same-sex unions. And a growing share of Omahans support gay marriage instead of civil unions.
The survey of 800 registered voters reflects a big swing from 12 years ago, when seven in 10 Nebraska voters passed a ballot initiative banning gay marriage.
Statewide support for gay marriage in the poll is nuanced, with a split between those favoring same-sex marriage (32 percent) and those OK with civil unions but not marriage (22 percent).
Added together, they reflect a majority of Nebraskans. And they show a definite shift from a World-Herald survey three years ago among supporters of same-sex unions weighing gay marriage versus civil unions.
In the 2009 poll, Omaha residents were about evenly split between those who were for gay marriage and those for civil unions only. This time around, far more Omahans went for gay marriage over civil unions. Slightly fewer Omahans in the recent survey were against either.
A political scientist called the shift in gay marriage support “real” rather than subject to statistical fluctuations.
“That's what's going on around the country,” said Greg Petrow, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “There's no reason to think that pattern wouldn't hold in Omaha.”
National polls consistently show an “evolution” — to use President Barack Obama's term — of attitudes over time on this issue. That's how the president explained his coming out in favor of gay marriage.
Over the past decade, Americans have flipped from being against gay marriage to being for it. A CBS/New York Times poll conducted in early September found 51 percent of Americans were for gay marriage and 41 percent were against it. Other polls found as recently as two years ago that gay marriage opponents had the edge.
It was enough of an issue in 2004 to swing states to then-President George W. Bush, who declared his support for traditional marriage and capitalized on that in the handful of states that had gay marriage bans on the ballot.
Obama came out for gay marriage in May. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney rarely mentions it.
“They (the GOP) don't think it's a political winner anymore,” Petrow said.
Gay marriage is prohibited in most states, and the director of a conservative Lincoln-based group, Family First, says that when put to a vote, people reject it.
“I do think on an issue like this, just asking a question, it might be kind of a knee-jerk response to say, ‘Well, yeah, sure,'” said Dave Bydalek, director of Family First. “Once people start making the case against it, maybe (poll respondents) would have second thoughts.”
Bydalek represents the 38 percent of Nebraskans who reject any legal recognition of same-sex unions.
It's a view held most deeply in rural parts of the state. Half of those polled from Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District said they couldn't support either gay marriage or civil unions.
Bydalek didn't dispute the overall poll results and said he wasn't surprised. But he said there's a difference between how people respond to polls and how they vote. People tend to vote against gay marriage, he said.
North Carolinians voted against gay marriage earlier this year, becoming the nation's 30th state to ban it.
Petrow said polled groups and voters are not the same.
For example, he said, younger people are the strongest supporters of gay marriage but a small sector of the electorate.
Six states, including Iowa, and Washington, D.C., have legalized gay marriage. Four states in November will vote on approving or banning gay marriage.
Craig Moody is a steering member of VOICE Omaha, a group that supported the city's move earlier this year to grant legal protections to gay and transgender residents. He said the poll results reflect the national trend and “make perfect sense to me.”
“It's becoming increasingly clear to all Nebraskans that equal rights for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community are an absolute necessity,” he said.
The World-Herald Poll found that support for gay marriage was highest among those under age 35, women, registered Democrats, those with college degrees and higher-income earners.
But Petrow said the full story is a mindset change.
“Sometimes people's attitudes change very glacially. That's not what's happening here,” he said. “People now support gay marriage who 10 years ago did not.”
The World-Herald Poll of 800 registered voters was conducted Sept. 17 through 20 by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
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