Midterm exit polls show marriage equality's momentum, staying power

Republicans got their voters to the polls this week. That is not news. You can barely click a dancing cat video without stumbling on someone else's commentary about these midterm elections and what they supposedly mean.

It's also no secret that the voters who did turn out (only around 36% of the country according to early figure) sent to the U.S. Senate several foes of marriage equality and LGBT equality in general. In fact, it appears that come January, when the new class takes their seats, the Senate will lose its status of having a majority of its members supporting marriage equality (although it will still be at a not-too-shabby—and bipartisan—forty-nine who do).

Even so, the citizens who turned out to the polls on Tuesday still demonstrated the rapid and unceasing shift in support of marriage equality that has happened over the past four years.  And in fact, considering the other big messages and takeaways and overall results of the evening, I find Tuesday's polling data to be some of the most compelling yet.    

NBC News reports the major takeaways from the national exit poll:

Support for [same-sex marriage] has shifted most dramatically among younger voters. In 2010, a bare majority – 52% – of voters under the age of 30 said same-sex marriage should be legal in their state. Now, that number stands at 64%.

Older voters have also increasingly supported legal same-sex marriage, although the shift has not been as large as among their younger counterparts. Four years ago, just 29% of voters age 65 and over supported gay marriage. Today, nearly 4-in-10 – 38% – of this group say gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry legally in their state.


Over all, this polling found an even split—48% supporting and 48% opposing. If that sounds low, remember that this data comes only from those who showed up to vote in Tuesday's midterms, not the whole country or even registered voters in general. This polling only concerns those who showed up to vote for conservative candidates way that they ultimately did.  And even with that sample, the split is even. Most notably, support is up a full seven points from where it was in 2010, when a similarly conservative electorate showed up to vote and answer the same exit polling questions.   

What's changed in four years? Exposure, obviously. LGBT rights activists have known for years that people simply getting to know us is better fuel for our public support than anything political consultants could devise. For our current time, that same principle can be altered and expanded to speak specifically to marriage equality. In the four years between the 2010 and 2014 midterm exit polling, this country has gone from five states and D.C. with marriage equality to over thirty (and D.C.) today. In 2010, the notion was much more theoretical to most voters, and it's much easier to say you oppose something you only know from headlines and fear ads. But during these four years, even as the electorate has turned more conservative in some ways, virtually everyone has had some exposure to a same-sex wedding and what that looks like.  It might be as close as a sibling or it might be only through People magazine's coverage of a gay celebrity's nuptials, but most Americans can now say they have seen what a same-sex marriage looks like—and have lived to tell the tale.

This exposure is why polling of the citizenry at large reliably shows majority support for marriage equality. But while this midterm split is lower than most general public polling, to the point of being a statistical dead heat, it is in some ways more compelling than the larger national tallies. That's because this move between two different conservative-leaning voting samples, very much alike in demographics but separated by four years of time, provides strong proof that marriage equality is moving in one decided direction, even when considered through the lens of a right-leaning electorate.  The clear trajectory of this fight is coming through even in conservative "wave" years.

And if support was already at a plurality in 2012, when the electorate was larger, younger, and less conservative, I can't wait to see how these trend lines move again in 2016.  Another seven year uptick would not surprise me in the slightest.  That might even be lowballing it.

Then again, we might already have all fifty states in the equality column by the time that election rolls around.  Which would also work.