PORTLAND — Mainers support legalizing same-sex marriage, 57 percent to 35 percent, according to a statewide poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald.
The proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot to allow gay couples to marry in Maine has broad support among most groups of voters. That support is especially strong in southern and coastal Maine and among young adults, women and Democrats, according to the poll.
The 22-point lead is clearly good news for backers of the ballot initiative. But, experts say, the margin of support is certain to be much smaller by Election Day.
Voters may not always say how they truly feel about gay rights, and they often are more supportive of change several months before an election than they are in the voting booth, said James Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Farmington.
Advertising efforts have helped to defeat same-sex marriage in Maine in the past, and advertising has yet to begin on either side.
Some polls in the months before Maine’s gay-marriage referendum in November 2009 suggested that the same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature might survive a repeal effort, but voters ultimately struck down the law, 53 percent to 47 percent.
“More than most election issues, that’s an issue where you have to take (polling) numbers with a grain of salt. I think those numbers will be closer on Election Day,” Melcher said. “That said, I think there’s been a lot of momentum in favor of same-sex marriage around the country.”
The new Maine poll shows broad support. More than 60 percent of voters in most age groups — including 18- to 34-year-olds and 55- to 64-year-olds — said they would vote yes if the election were held now.
Those 65 and older were split on the question — with 44 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.
“I’ve been married for 45 years I’ve got no interest in anyone voting for it,” said Herman London, 70, a retired farmer from Hodgdon in Aroostook County. “We change definitions for too many things. Sometimes in this country you’ve got to take a stand and stick with something.”
London is among the 64 percent of Republicans polled who oppose the proposal. Thirty percent of Republicans said they support the same-sex marriage initiative.
More than three-quarters of Democrats and 63 percent of independents said they favor the new law.
Angelina Simmons, a 36-year-old education technician and an independent voter from Harpswell, said traditions need to change.
“What’s traditional? Is traditional when marriage (meant that) brides were bought with goats?” she said. “I think it’s a civil rights issue.”
George McNeil, a physician who is a registered Democrat from Steep Falls, agreed.
“The fact that homosexuals are denied a basic civil right should be an embarrassment for our state and our country,” he said.
Sixty-three percent of voters in the southern and coastal 1st Congressional District said they support the change, and 52 percent in the central and northern 2nd District said they approve.
While polls show same-sex marriage gaining support nationwide, Mainers appear to be more supportive than Americans in general.
Asked whether they most support same-sex marriage, civil unions or no legal recognition of same-sex couples, 50 percent of the Maine voters who were polled chose marriage. Twenty-eight percent chose civil unions and 17 percent said neither.
The bulk of Republicans — 44 percent — chose civil unions as an alternative to marriage.
A national CBS News/New York Times poll in February said that just 40 percent of Americans named marriage as their preferred option. Twenty-three percent favored civil unions and 31 percent said they support neither type of legal recognition.
The Press Herald poll suggests that the controversial wording of the ballot question does not significantly change polling results on the issue.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers shortened and simplified the question submitted by gay-marriage advocates to say: “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
Referendum organizers say that question leaves out a key part of the law that protects religious freedom by saying clergy members wouldn’t be forced to perform same-sex weddings.
Summers’ office is taking public comment on the question until Monday, and he is expected to release the final wording later this month.
The Press Herald poll used the state’s proposed ballot language to survey voters, and the level of support was in line with that in other recent polls. Nevertheless, with support expected to slip between now and November, the ballot’s wording is sure to remain contentious.