Poorly Worded Poll on “Supreme Court Action” on Gay Marriage

October 19th, 2014

ABC News ran a story with the headline “Most Americans Back Supreme Court on Gay Marriage — Including in the Affected States.” It begins:

Most Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll support the recent U.S. Supreme Court action allowing gay marriages to go forward in several states – including a bare majority in the 11 states in which such marriages have begun in the past week and a half.

Overall, 56 percent of Americans support the court’s action, while 38 percent oppose it – exactly matching opinions on whether or not gay marriage should be legal, asked in an ABC/Post poll in June. These results reflect the public’s dramatic shift in support of gay marriage the past decade.

The story goes on to explain that a majority approved of the Court’s denial of certiorari, which lifted stays in a number of states to allow same-sex marriages to proceed.

But the poll itself offered no such clarification. Here is the question posed to the those poled:

On another subject, do you support or oppose the Supreme Court action this week that allows gay marriages to go forward in several more states? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

Taking as a given that most people are rationally ignorant about the Supreme Court, and have no idea who the Justice are, or what they do, I find this poll unhelpful. When a poll asks about “Supreme Court action,” invariably the interviewees would think that there was some sort of decision on gay marriage. Instead, as we know, the Court issued no decision, and by declining review, allowed gay marriages to proceed in some of the affected states, but not in other states absent a petition for certiorari. I understand it would be very difficult to explain this complicated dynamic to non-experts, the question was poorly worded, as it suggested something that did not happen–a decision on gay marriage.

The flipside to this criticism, is that Americans don’t seem particularly bothered by a Supreme Court decision invalidating bans on same-sex marriage. This undercuts Justice Ginsburg’s oft-expressed concern about moving too quickly.