As Professor Jacobson pointed out the other day, there is an effort already underway to game the refs at the Supreme Court, similar to in the Obamacare case, by creating a media and political narrative that the Court’s legitimacy would be threatened if it were on the “wrong side of history” on gay marriage.

That “gaming the ref” effort was seen the other day at Politico.

Politico’s 9 December headline blared, “Poll: Plurality Support Gay Marriage” which to the undiscerning reader sounds awfully like most people are in favor.

The poll was picked up in many places.  The ever excitable writers at Slate saw Politco’s story and quickly ran their own entry with an almost word-for-word headline.

But using their own numbers, Politico could have equally, and perhaps more honestly have written, “Majority Against Gay Marriage“.  Or they could have even said “Nation Split on Gay Marriage.”  All would have been correct given the actual poll results.

The poll asked which of three views best described a person’s view on gay marriage:

  1. Same sex couples should be able to be legally married;
    Same sex couples should be able to enter into civil unions but not be allowed to get married, OR
    Same sex couples should not be allowed to have any type of legal union?

Only 40%—a minority—agreed with legal marriage.  But 30% said civil unions without marriage was best, and 24% said no marriage and no civil union.  That makes 54%—a majority—against marriage.

So while is strictly true that a plurality do support gay marriage when gay marriage is put as one choice of three questions,  it is also true, and more faithful to the data, to say a majority is against it.  

Since this bit of mathematics is trivial, even a journalist could have done it, and probably did.  That means the decision to write the headline was either deliberate, chosen to align with the site’s prejudices, or the result of blind enthusiasm for the subject.

Smart money is on the former.  This is because an interesting tidbit revealed 82% said “No” or “No/Strongly” to “Have your views on same sex marriage or gay marriage changed over the past few years?”  And just three days later in a poll-informed article analyzing the Supreme Court’s upcoming review of two gay marriage cases, Politico wrote, “gay-rights backers say Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is broadly consistent with where a majority of Americans is headed on the issue…” 

But their own poll showed the overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t headed anywhere.  Indeed, in Slate’s coverage of the poll, they said, “This latest poll shows support for gay marriage at a lower level than other recent surveys.”  That means either this poll’s sample is constructed differently than other polls (though a glance through it shows a fairly even split of the electorate), or support is actually decreasing, perhaps because of the increased coverage of gay marriage. 

William M. Briggs, the Statistician to the Stars!, is a sometime Professor of Statistics at Cornell and a most-times consultant. For what an explanation of what polling is, click here.