07/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats, Republicans Out of Touch on Gay Rights in Michigan

Yowza. In just five years, support for both gay marriage and civil unions in Michigan has jumped by more than 20 points apiece. Now 64 percent of voters favor civil unions and 47 percent back gay marriage, according to a new, independent survey by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group.

"Gay marriage is where civil unions were five years ago," said President Richard Czuba, former Michigan Director of Planning and Public Affairs under GOP Gov. John Engler. "People's perceptions have changed over five years. The issue isn't whether they support the rights of their gay friends and neighbors. The question is how to protect those rights."

That's a dramatic turnaround for Michigan, which banned gay marriage in a 2004 constitutional amendment known as Proposal 2. In Glengariff's survey that year, only 24 percent supported gay marriage and 42 percent favored civil unions. Support for civil unions has soared by 52 percent and gay marriage by a jaw-dropping 94 percent.

What I find fascinating is just how tone-deaf both the Republicans and Democrats are on gay issues. Let's start with the obvious: the GOP, which has further to go to get to the mainstream.

Czuba said the survey's inspiration was Kent County GOP head Joanne Voorhees revoking an invitation to Utah Gov. John Huntsman to headline an April fundraiser. Voorhees took issue with Huntsman's support of civil unions.

"The voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots. Unfortunately, by holding an event with Governor Huntsman, we would be doing the exact opposite," Voorhees wrote in an e-mail.

But the poll found that 50.3 percent of self-identified Republicans back civil unions, as well as 69.3 percent of Democrats and 67.1 percent of independents. In West and Southwest Michigan, 61.5 percent of voters are in favor of civil unions. For gay marriage, 25.5 percent of Republicans support it, with 65.1 percent of Democrats and 42.5 percent of independents. In West and Southwest Michigan, 38.5 percent of voters are in favor of civil unions.

"This shows that (Huntsman is) not just in tune with his party, but with the vast majority of Michigan voters," Czuba said. "I think there's a lot of misinformation about where voters really stand on these issues."

It should be noted that Czuba was one of the collaborators on the infamous Republican white paper, along with Dennis Darnoi, Matt Marsden and Paul Egnatuck. That analyzed election data to show where the GOP was at in Michigan and what kind of message could work in 2010. Hint: Banging on gay marriage and adoption weren't winners. Now we see why in black and white polling data.

Of course, Darnoi lost his job with Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop because the Senate GOP caucus called for his head. It will be interesting to see if the poll causes any of them to reconsider their strategy, but I'm guessing they ignore it or ask Gary Glenn and his American Family Association of Michigan to spit out some propaganda that makes them feel better.

"The positions of five years ago that Republicans had -- they're standing on quicksand now," Czuba warned. "The population is shifting very quickly away from them on these issues."

Then there are the Democrats who have done precious little on gay rights issues, besides timid attempts at anti-bullying, adoption and non-discrimination legislation. Nothing has gone anywhere. Czuba notes that Democratic support on gay rights issues is strong, never dipping below 65 percent. Independents support the issues, except gay marriage, which they oppose by a 5-percent margin. Republican voters supported five of the nine issues.

It's nice that the Michigan Democratic Party sent out a press release on gay pride month, but there's still a persistent feeling that gay marriage cost the Dems the 2004 election. So most Democrats pay lip service to gay rights and little else.

"The question for the Democrats is: Why are you playing defense on these issues instead of trying to move on these?" Czuba asked.

A good question, indeed.

The poll of 600 registered Michigan voters taken May 27 to 29 tested nine gay rights issues and found majority support for all but gay marriage. About 65 percent of voters called the nine issues equal rights, while about 28 percent said they were special rights. Czuba said the results in Michigan were comparable to recent polling Glengariff did in Illinois.

More than 93 percent support a guaranteed right to visit a gay or lesbian partner in the hospital, which is not protected in Michigan. More than 71 percent said it should be illegal to fire someone for being gay or deny them housing, even though there's no nondiscrimination law in the state. And 70 percent back extending hate crimes legislation to gays and lesbians, even though that issue has stalled in the Legislature.

So why the shift in Michigan? It's true that in recent months, a number of states, including Vermont and Iowa, have given the OK to gay marriages. And Czuba said it makes a difference that President George W. Bush is no longer in office after having "used the issue," particularly in the 2004 election. Czuba said this has weakened gay rights opposition.

However, the main reason, Czuba said, is that more people know someone who's gay or lesbian. Five years ago, 56 percent of voters knew a gay person. Today, that's jumped to 80 percent. Czuba found that knowing someone who's gay translates to a 13.7 percent bump in support for gay rights issues.

Polling found that 81 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents know someone who's gay. Ninety-five percent of those 18-24 know a gay person, but more surprising is that more than 75 percent of those 65 and older do, too.