NEW YORK -- Poll after poll shows public support for same-sex marriage steadily increasing, to the point where it's now a majority viewpoint. Yet in all 32 states where gay marriage has been on the ballot, voters have rejected it.
It's possible the streak could end in November, when Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state are likely to have closely contested gay marriage measures on their ballots.
For now, however, there remains a gap between the national polling results and the way states have voted. It's a paradox with multiple explanations, from political geography to the likelihood that some conflicted voters tell pollsters one thing and then vote differently.
"It's not that people are lying. It's an intensely emotional issue," said Amy Simon, a pollster based in Oakland, Calif. "People can report to you how they feel at the moment they're answering the polls, but they can change their mind."
California experienced that phenomenon in November 2008, when voters, by a 52-48 margin, approved a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. A statewide Field Poll that September indicated Proposition 8 would lose decisively; an updated poll a week before the vote still showed it trailing by 5 percentage points.
California is an unusual case. It's one of a few reliably Democratic states that have had a statewide vote rebuffing same-sex marriage. The vast majority of the referendums have been in more conservative states, which have a greater predilection for using ballot measures to set social policy. The 32 states that have rejected gay marriage at the polls make up just over 60 percent of the U.S. population.
Voters in liberal states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, where gay marriage was legalized by judges or legislators, might vote to affirm those decisions but haven't had the opportunity.
Most of the states that voted against gay marriage did so between 2004 and 2008. Since then, only Maine in 2009 and North Carolina on May 8 have rebuffed same-sex marriage in referendums, while legislatures in Washington state, Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Illinois and Delaware have voted for same-sex marriage or civil unions.
In all, there are now six states with legal same-sex marriage and nine more granting gay and lesbian couples broad marriage-style rights via civil unions or domestic partnerships. Together, those 15 states account for about 35 percent of the U.S. population.
Over the past year, there's been a stream of major national polls indicating that a majority of people support same-sex marriage. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday, 53 percent of those questioned say gay marriage should be legal, a new high for the poll, while 39 percent, a new low, say it should be illegal.
Political consultant Frank Schubert, a leading strategist for campaigns against same-sex marriage in California and elsewhere, said such polls are misleading and he asserted that same-sex marriage would be rejected if a national referendum were held now.
"The pollsters are asking if same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal, and that phrasing is problematic because it implies some government sanction against same-sex couples," Schubert said. "People want to be sympathetic to same-sex couples, so polls that use that language aren't particularly useful."
The more useful question, Schubert said, is whether marriage should be defined as the union of a man and a woman – the gist of the constitutional amendments approved in 30 states.
"If you ask that question, you get strong majorities," Schubert said.
Mark DeCamillo, director of the Field Poll in California, agreed with Schubert that same-sex marriage probably would lose in a hypothetical national referendum now. One important factor, he said, is whether there would be more intensity among supporters or opponents.
In California, same-sex marriage has such overwhelming support today that Prop 8 almost certainly would be overturned if a new state referendum were held, DeCamillo said.
The latest Field Poll, in February, measured voter approval of gay marriage among registered California voters at 59 percent, which was the highest in 35 years of polling on the issue, while only 34 percent disapproved. In the first Field Poll on the topic, in 1977, 59 percent opposed gay marriage and 28 percent were in favor.
Nonetheless, the largest gay-rights group in the state, Equality California, remains cautious and isn't yet ready to begin a campaign to overturn Prop 8. A federal court has struck down the law, but that ruling has been appealed.
"We aren't confident that the level of support is stable enough to withstand the rigors of a referendum," said spokeswoman Rebekah Orr. "We know that people are conflicted. Their intellectual position can show up in a poll and their emotional position shows up in the voting booth."
California is among 30 states where voters have approved amendments limiting marriage to unions of one man and one woman. In Hawaii, voters passed an amendment in 1998 empowering the Legislature to ban gay marriage, which it proceeded to do. The ban remains in effect, though Hawaii lawmakers approved civil unions last year.
The other statewide vote was in Maine in 2009, when 53 percent of the voters overturned a law that would have legalized same-sex marriage.
The issue is back on Maine's ballot for Nov. 6, with voters getting another chance to approve same-sex marriage. Schubert, who is advising gay-marriage opponents in Maine, depicts it as the toughest contest for his side among the four statewide elections this fall.
In Minnesota, voters will be deciding whether to approve a gay-marriage ban similar to those in the other 30 states. In Maryland and Washington, assuming enough valid signatures are gathered by gay marriage opponents, there will be ballot measures seeking to overturn same-sex marriage laws passed by legislators this year.
However those four referendums turn out, there's widespread belief among gay rights activists and many pollsters that support for same-sex marriage will continue to grow nationwide.
"The numbers are inexorably moving in one direction," said DeCamillo. "Older folks, who are more in opposition, are dying out and younger folks are more inclined to support it. It's not rocket science."
He said support for gay marriage is surging in California among young Latinos and Asian-Americans. Nationally, according the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, support has risen among blacks since President Barack Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage on May 9.
Phyllis Watts, a consulting psychologist from Sacramento, Calif., has worked with several recent ballot-measure campaigns, including the failed effort to defeat Prop 8 in California and a successful drive last year to defeat an anti-abortion "personhood" measure in Mississippi.
She believes a statewide vote in favor of same-sex marriage is likely to come soon. But she suggests that any particular poll should be viewed with caution.
"People are in a fluid state around same-sex marriage. They really can feel one way one day and another way another day," she said. "I don't think the polls are able to track, with a level of nuance, what's actually occurring inside people's hearts."