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President Obama's announcement that he supports gay marriage comes amid a public shift. Many Americans are changing their minds. In this part of the program we'll hear what Americans are saying and dip into the book some cite for their opinions.
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center has been polling on this issue for years.
ANDREW KOHUT: Let's go all the way back to 1996. By a margin of 27 to 65 percent, people said they opposed gay marriage.
INSKEEP: So 65 percent were opposed in the mid-1990s.
KOHUT: And that really didn't change very much. By '04, a very important election relative to gay marriage, it was still 31 favor, 60 oppose.
INSKEEP: And now there are more people in your polling who say that they approve of gay marriage than disapprove.
KOHUT: By a slight margin, 47 to 43, and their other polls that have an even bigger...
INSKEEP: Put it over 50 percent in some of the Gallup surveys, for example.
KOHUT: That's right. That's right.
INSKEEP: OK, so it's unusual to have that big a change on that kind of issue in a relatively short period of time?
KOHUT: Yes. On abortion there is no change. You can go back 25 years and you'll still see the same numbers we see today. What's happened here are two things. One is generational replacement. Younger people, who have joined the electorate, came of age accepting gay marriage, and 63 percent majority of those people currently favor.
And we also see people of all ages changing their minds a little bit, even the oldest people. But the big difference is that people under 35 are now more dominant than they were two cycles ago.
INSKEEP: Now, what happens when you begin slicing up the electorate, as politicians certainly would? If you look at suburban women, if you look at African-Americans, any number of different groups - do you see the same kinds of changes, the same trend lines?
KOHUT: The changes are more or less across the board with one exception. If you look at people who think of themselves as Republican, they today have the same low level of support, 23 percent, as they had back in 2001 - 21 percent. All of the action, so to speak, in terms of opinion change, has occurred among independent voters and among Democrats.
INSKEEP: Now, let ask about something that is little surprising, though, given this number. Americans, when presented with ballot issues on the question of gay marriage, have continued to vote in state after state after state to ban gay marriage. And it happened most recently on Tuesday in North Carolina.
KOHUT: I think the reason that when we ask people about voting priorities, we still see the opponents of gay marriage saying that this is a bigger voting issue for them than the supporters. Now, that gap is much narrower than it was back in 2004. So what's going on here is that when we get to these plebiscites, we're dealing with smaller slices of the electorate.
For example, in North Carolina, just 34 percent of registered voters participated...
INSKEEP: This is a primary. It wasn't a general election.
KOHUT: That's right, and when you cut the population more sharply, you get the impact of this greater electoral issue having a bigger effect on the outcome.
INSKEEP: OK, so supporters of gay marriage have more and more people behind them. And there is some intensity there, increasing intensity, as politicians will say, but there's still an awful lot of intensity on the opposition side, and they're getting their people out to the polls.
KOHUT: To a greater extent, opponents are more mobilized than supporters when we're dealing with relatively small slices of the electorate. But when we begin to look at the broader electorate, maybe in November, when we have 60 percent of the electorate participating, gay marriage might have a different kind of impact.
INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, thanks very much.
KOHUT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.