First Advisor

Kim Williams

Date of Publication

Spring 5-22-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Political Science


Political Science




Gay rights -- United States -- Public opinion, Same-sex marriage -- United States -- Public opinion, Referendum -- United States



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 124 pages)


Scholarly research on the subject of the swift pace of change in support for same-sex marriage has evolved significantly over the last ten years. The shift has gone beyond the scholarship's initial description amongst demographic groups on how opinion has changed on gay rights issues, like same-sex marriage, to an examination of why the change has occurred. A great deal of the initial research on the topic seemed to focus on demographic traits that suggested a greater propensity toward support for same-sex marriage as time went on. Is the existent literature sufficient to explain why such a dramatic change in public opinion has occurred in the United States? My goal in this paper is to explore the plausibility that electoral events and the public dialogue/debate that surround them have accelerated the impact described in the four predominant theories, cohort succession, contact theory, intracohort theory, and media exposure.

This paper includes three separate hypotheses to explore the possible connections between efforts to restrict gay rights at the ballot box and the ever-increasing support for same-sex marriage in public opinion polls. The results provide some preliminary indication that there are plausible connections between individual statewide efforts to restrict gay rights and increases in national public opinion support for same-sex marriage.

The first analysis examines electoral events concerning gay rights in states where these issues have faced voters most frequently; California, Maine, and Oregon. The first hypotheses posits a potential connection between exposure to gay rights at the ballot box and greater support for gay rights in subsequent elections concerning gay rights in the same state. No clear or consistent pattern of support emerges for successive electoral measures concerning gay rights where voters have been previously exposed to gay rights question in an electoral context.

The second analysis explores national public opinion support for same-sex marriage as statewide ballot measures increase in popularity across the United States. The second hypotheses posits a connection between an increase in statewide electoral events concerning questions of same-sex marriage and an increase in national public opinion support for same-sex marriage with state-to-nation diffusion occurring and prodding upward national public opinion support for same-sex marriage simultaneously. The hypotheses is confirmed by data that suggests as election events on same-sex marriage increase across the United States at the state level, so too increases national public opinion support for same-sex marriage.

The third analysis explores the rate of change in support for legal same-sex marriage across the three states where gay rights referenda and ballot initiatives have been most frequent; it posits that in states where voters have greater familiarity with gay rights at the ballot because of previous exposure to them, their support will be greater over time than public opinion measured in other states that have similar political cultures but have not faced the same level of electoral activity on gay rights. The final hypothesis is inconclusive because of the fluid nature of the same-sex marriage debate in the universe of states within the United States. States are handling this salient issue in a number of ways; some legislatures now seem to be taking steps to legalize same-sex marriage statutorily; others may take no action to propel the provision of same-sex marriage equality or end constitutional bans on the practice; while another group of states are leaving activists to litigate the policy in Federal courts or shift the debate toward statewide popular votes on the issue of authorizing same-sex marriage at the ballot box via ballot initiative or referendum.


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