African-Americans, the Last Democratic Holdouts on Gay Marriage?

Support for gay marriage among African-Americans, one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting blocs, lags behind the rest of the party. But just as President Obama has offered high-profile support on the issue and an African-American NBA player came out as gay this week, public opinion among blacks has also been shifting.

Polling on gay marriage among blacks has been mixed. A March 2013 Pew Center study -- which compiled results from four surveys conducted over more than a year -- found 40 percent of African-Americans support gay marriage, with 48 percent opposing. The same study found 49 percent of whites and 61 percent of Democrats support gay marriage.

Other polls, with much smaller sample sizes than the Pew study, actually show a majority of black voters now support gay marriage. A March 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 51 percent of African-American voters now support gay marriage. A May 2012 ABC News/Washington Post poll found 59 percent support gay marriage.

Michael Dimock, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, said it’s natural that there’s some statistical “noise” around such polls. But what is clear is that, just as with the general population, support for gay marriage is growing among blacks. Ten years ago, just 27 percent of African-Americans favored gay marriage, according to the Pew study.

“There is still a difference in the balance in opinion between whites and blacks, but the rate of change within those two groups is very similar,” Dimock said.

Public figures changing their opinions or coming out as gay themselves have also pushed the issue to the forefront and forced some level of re-examination. President Obama publicly came out in support of same-sex marriage in May 2012. Washington Wizards center Jason Collins, who came out this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated, is the first professional basketball player to reveal he's gay.

"Given the importance of sports in our society, for an individual who's excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports to go out and say, 'This is who I am, I'm proud of it'… I'm very proud of him,” Obama said, addressing Collins during a Tuesday press conference.

Why have opinions among blacks changed? Just like with whites, younger blacks are more supportive of gay marriage than seniors, Dimock says, and the share of millennials within the population is rising. There are also individuals who have changed their minds; within the Pew March 2013 study, people who had changed their minds on gay marriage cited reasons for the change as knowing someone who is gay, that they grew more tolerant or aware, that the world has changed and legalizing gay marriage wouldn't hurt, or that individuals should have more freedoms.

But even as attitudes are changing among all groups, there still appears to be a gap between the general population and blacks on the question of gay marriage. Religious attitudes help explain some of that; opposition to gay marriage is higher among religious Americans, and African-Americans tend to be more religious than the American population as a whole. Initial exit polling after California’s same-sex marriage ban passed by referendum prompted an oft-repeated storyline: that Proposition 8 passed because black voters supported it. But more specifically, religious voters of all races helped pass the ban.

But religion doesn’t fully explain the gap between whites and blacks on gay marriage: Pew found 60 percent of Americans who don’t attend church weekly support gay marriage, while support is only at 42 percent among blacks who aren’t regular churchgoers.

Such lack of support for gay marriage among blacks may signal some fertile ground for the GOP’s efforts to make inroads among minorities. But even socially-conservative black voters aren’t rejecting Democrats because of gay marriage. For instance, gay marriage was approved by Maryland voters in 2012 but narrowly rejected in predominantly black Prince George’s County, a deeply-Democratic part of the state that includes many large religious institutions. At the same time, 90 percent of Prince George’s County voters supported President Obama, even though he had come out in favor of same-sex marriage.

The same holds true across the country. In 2008, 95 percent of black voters cast ballots for President Obama, according to exit polls. In 2012, he still won 93 percent of the black vote.

Gay marriage isn’t a determining issue for many voters, white or black, when deciding who to support in a presidential election. Respondents in the Pew survey were asked which issue matters most to them in deciding who to vote for as president: jobs, health care, immigration, budget deficit reduction, society security or gay marriage. Only 5 percent of blacks and 4 percent of whites chose gay marriage.

“Of the demographics that divide on this issue, race is probably one of the smaller ones. There’s an equally significant divide between men and women,” said Dimock.