06/20/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Federalists of Convenience? How Changing Attitudes on Same-sex Marriage are Affecting Supporters and Opponents

In 2006, the public opinion landscape on the issue of same-sex marriage looked very different than it does today. Two years earlier, the 2004 election witnessed the passage of a raft of new constitutional amendments that prohibited the practice. Opponents of same-sex marriage substantially outnumbered supporters. Public opposition to same-sex marriage was estimated to be as high as 55 percent, while levels of support topped out at nearly four in 10.

With public opinion firmly on their side, opponents of same-sex marriage strongly preferred that the issue be decided at the national level and not be left up to the states, despite their philosophical objections about increasing the scope of government action. By contrast, supporters of same-sex marriage fighting the tide of popular opinion favored a states' rights approach, despite principled objections to that approach on many other issues. In 2006, 56 percent of opponents favored a national decision, while 54 percent of supporters favored a state-level decision on the issue.

What a difference seven years can make. Support for same-sex marriage now hovers around the majority mark in most polls, just above 50 percent. In response to the sea change in opinion about the issue, both supporters and opponents have adopted very different views about which level of government should make the final decision on its legality. Opponents of same-sex marriage have now reversed course to adopt a states' right approach to the issue while supporters have made a very similar about-face, now favoring a national approach. A survey conducted by PRRI earlier this year found that nearly 6-in-10 opponents of same-sex marriage feel the issue should be decided by the states, while 55 percent of supporters say the federal government should make the call.

As opinion continues to trend towards greater support for same-sex marriage, conservative elected officials, like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), are increasingly backing a let-the-states-decide approach. Supporters, meanwhile, appear more intent on taking the debate to the national stage and arguing for a single decision by the federal government.

Despite the notion that American attitudes on most political issues are based on enduring allegiances to broad political philosophies, the shifting attitudes among same-sex marriage opponents and supporters suggest that we are far more loyal to the exigencies at hand. On the issue of same-sex marriage, Americans are federalists when public opinion is on their side and embrace the power of the states when it is not.