Poll: Black Voters Not Responsible for Passage of Same-Sex Marriage Ban in California

A new poll found that socioeconomic status played more of a role than race.

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SAN FRANCISCO—The first major post-election poll on the outcome of Proposition 8 finds that huge majorities of Republicans, evangelicals, and older voters were responsible for passing the initiative banning same-sex marriage in California. Voters were most sharply divided not by race, as some political pundits have suggested, but by income level and education, the poll finds, and the measure's passage was not due to the historic turnout of black voters who supported Barack Obama.

According to exit polls, 70 percent of African-Americans said they voted yes on Proposition 8, which passed with 52 percent of the vote. Many political commentators have contended that socially conservative blacks were the swing votes that sealed the measure's fate. Some observers found it ironic that while an African-American was finally winning the presidency, his strongest supporters appeared to be torpedoing the rights of another historically persecuted minority group. "It was the black vote that voted down gay marriage," Bill O'Reilly said almost gleefully on Fox News.

The poll released today by the Public Policy Institute of California, though, finds that Prop 8's strongest support came not from African-Americans but from white conservatives, born-again Christians, and low-income voters. Party affiliation, age, and religion played a far greater role in determining the measure's final outcome than race, the poll finds. More than 3 in 4 Republicans voted to ban same-sex marriage in the state, as did 85 percent of evangelical voters. Only 43 percent of all voters between the ages of 18 and 34 supported the ban, while 56 percent of those over 55 did.

Voters on the coast generally supported same-sex marriage and the more culturally conservative inland areas of the state voted against it, but ultimately it was income and education—much more than race—that determined voters' preferences. While only 43 percent of college graduates voted to ban gay marriage, 69 percent of voters with a high school degree or less voted for the proposition. Nearly 2 in 3 voters making less than $40,000 a year voted for Prop 8, while 55 percent of those making $80,000 or more voted against it.

Black voters, meanwhile, may have had very little impact on the measure's passage, the poll finds. Even though African-Americans turned out in historic numbers in California, as they did in many other states, exit polls showed they still comprised, at most, only 10 percent of the state's voters. There were simply not enough black votes to sway the initiative's outcome, pollsters say.

The new poll's sample size of black voters was too small to draw many conclusions, but this much seems clear: Proposition 8 received a total of 6.8 million votes, according to the California secretary of state's final tally, and, at most, about 900,000 of those votes came from African-Americans. If black voters had voted the same way as whites—50 percent for same-sex marriage and 50 percent opposed—the net gain for same-sex marriage supporters would have been slightly more than 500,000 votes. Prop 8 passed by a margin of just under 600,000 votes.

"The real dividing line on Proposition 8, according to our poll, is socioeconomic status," says Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California and the poll's director. "There are, of course, socioeconomic differences between whites and nonwhites, and that's probably why there was at least initially a focus on race. But the more important distinguishing factor—aside from religion, partisanship, and age—is education and income."

A month after the election, voters in this state continue to disagree over whether same-sex marriage should be legal, with 47 percent of voters in favor, 48 percent opposed, and 5 percent unsure, according to the poll. "Public opinion is divided on the issue, and that's why a narrow victory was possible," says Baldassare.

A court challenge of the election's result will be heard by the state's Supreme Court next year.