Sarah Dowling, who lives outside Portland, Maine, has been waiting for almost two decades to marry her girlfriend. A sign of hope that voters will give her that right hangs in her closet: a new wedding dress.
“It’s hard not to be optimistic,” said Dowling, 54, a social worker. “I know so many people who have moved from a not-supportive stance to a supportive one.”
In Maine, Maryland and Washington, voters on Nov. 6 will decide whether to allow gay men and lesbians to wed. The issue is drawing the broadest public support to date and surveys show the measures leading in all three states -- giving advocates their best chance yet for the first ballot-box victory after a decade of defeat.
About half of Americans say gay marriage should be legal, according to national polls. A June 28-July 9 poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage, with 44 percent opposed. That’s a reversal from 2009, when they opposed it 54-37 percent.
“The increase in support for same-sex marriage has been quite rapid over the past four years, a much steeper rise than we saw over the previous eight years that we’d been tracking this,” said Scott Keeter, the director of survey research for Pew, a nonpartisan group, in an interview. “Most analysts of public opinion expected this growth in support to happen, although perhaps not as fast as it actually did.”
Voters have rejected same-sex marriage in all 32 states where it has appeared on the ballot, including in Maine in 2009. The unions are legal in six states and the District of Columbia because of court rulings and measures approved by public officials.
“The most important thing we can do is take the talking point away from opponents of marriage equality that we have consistently lost at the ballot box,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, in an interview.
Advocates on both sides say the state contests will be close, and that opinions may shift over the next month as political advertising becomes more frequent.
The Maine gay marriage measure was leading 53-43 percent, according to a poll by the nonprofit Maine People’s Resource Center. In Maryland, an OpinionWorks survey showed it leading 49-39 percent.
In Washington, the gay marriage measure led 51-37 percent, according to an Elway Research poll. That may not be as promising as appears. H. Stuart Elway, the president of the Seattle-based polling firm, said ballot measures have typically needed more than 60 percent by late summer in order to win.
In a fourth state, Minnesota, voters are split over a proposed constitutional amendment to bar homosexual marriage, according to a Public Policy Polling survey last month. Marriage is limited to heterosexual couples in the state, and the measure would cement that stance.
Brian Brown, the president of the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage, which is working to defeat the measures, said polls have tended to overstate support.
“We have confidence that the people of all four states are going to protect traditional marriage,” Brown said in an interview. “The other side wants to make it seem inevitable. It’s inevitable so you should just give up. Well, we’re not giving up.”
Only supporters had run television advertisements in Washington and Maine through Oct. 1, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political spending. No ads for either side had appeared in Maryland.
“We have the momentum, but I think it’s going to be a nail biter,” said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a Baltimore-based group fighting for the passage of gay marriage, in an interview. “In the past, we’ve seen the opposition come fast and furious near the end, in terms of their funding and their ad buys.”
Same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia. The unions aren’t recognized by the U.S. government because of a 1996 law that’s being challenged in federal appeals court.
In May, President Barack Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage, a stance later incorporated into the Democratic Party’s platform.
The question was placed on the ballot directly by gay-marriage advocates in Maine. In the other two states, the measures seek to overturn laws passed by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, both Democrats.
In all three states, religious leaders wouldn’t be forced to marry gay couples, a step intended to head off opposition.
In Maryland, Delman Coates, a reverend who leads a more than 7,000-member Baptist church in Clinton, is encouraging his congregation to vote in favor.
“I don’t think it’s proper to ask, ‘What do you believe theologically?’” he said in an interview. “The proper issue is whether all people -- even gays and lesbians -- deserve to be treated equally under the law.”
Steve Raabe, president of the Annapolis-based polling firm OpinionWorks, said opinion has shifted significantly in Maryland in favor of gay marriage since the measure first passed the legislature earlier this year. He said that was driven by rising support from black voters, which may have been helped by Obama’s shift and an endorsement by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Baltimore-based civil rights group.
“It’s definitely moving in the direction of the proponents,” he said in an interview. “The biggest factor is what happens between now and November in the churches. They could really move those numbers back.”
In Maine, Matt Hutson, a spokesman for Protect Marriage Maine, which is working to defeat the measure, said public opinion is beginning to shift his way. He said his own poll was more favorable to his side than the other surveys, showing a narrower gap.
“The fact that the race is still so tight simply reflects that Mainers have not changed their mind on this issue since 2009 when they rejected same-sex marriage,” he said in an e-mail. “We do expect this to be a close vote, one in which traditional marriage wins again.”
Dowling, the Maine resident who wants to get married, has been volunteering for Mainers United for Marriage, which is advocating for the law’s passage.
If the measure prevails, she’ll be able to marry Linda Wolfe, 57, a nurse with whom she has a 11-year-old daughter, Maya. Still, she has fallback plans for her wedding dress.
“I bought it, and I didn’t tell my partner, and when it arrived she said, ’Well, what are we going to do if we lose?’” she said. “We’re going to have a bonfire and invite our friends.”