[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.
I'm both a political junkie and an elections professional (I train community groups to increase participation), so I actually enjoy poring over polling date. In this post, I'm going to look at some of the polling about elders in the upcoming election and particularly at polling on state Proposition 8, a measure that that would add language to the state constitution to eliminate same-sex couples’ right to marry in California.
Some basics I keep in mind when looking at the data:
- Different pollsters define older people differently in their surveys. The most common definition seems to be voters 65 and up. Those of us between 60 and 65, who TGB also names "elders," disappear statistically in the huge mass of voters 50-64.
- Voters in the over-65 age group are only a little over 19 percent of registered voters according to a Pew Research Convention Backgrounder. We're often told we're a huge chunk of the electorate, and we are, but not as huge as we might have been led to think.
- The reason elders are thought to be such a large segment is that fully 79 percent of us were registered and 70 percent of those actually voted in 2004; that's higher than the electorate at large in both categories. Maybe we have just hung around long enough to get more involved?
Much has been made this year of how attractive to Senator Obama is to young people. And polls bear that out; the Democrat was winning young voters by 60 - 33 percent in August.
At the same time, there is some evidence that Obama has a much harder time with older voters. Recently some 16 percent of voters over 65 reported being undecided.
"Seniors are about 50 percent more likely than other voters to be uncommitted at this point in the race. Voters aged 65+ will eventually represent about 20 percent of the electorate, but they may represent more like 30 percent of the pool of persuadables."
That explains why the candidates may pay a lot of attention to elders. Senator Obama's selection of Joe Biden as his running mate was supposed to assist in bringing us into his fold.
Here in California, age also seems to be a big factor in whether people will vote for or against the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The Field Poll, considered the gold standard for the Golden State, found on July 18 that if the election were being held then, more voters said they would vote No (51 percent) on Prop. 8 than would vote Yes (42 percent).
Democrats overwhelmingly will vote No - and we have a substantial plurality of Democrats.
"By age, opposition to Prop. 8 is greatest among younger voters under age 30, as well as among baby boomers in the 50 - 64 age bracket. Voters in other age groups are more evenly divided."
Though in this poll all groups would reject Prop. 8 at least narrowly, voters over 65 came closest to approving it, showing a 45/46 split.
It seems pretty clear that the variable that decides whether people can support same-sex marriage is their own experience with gay people. According to a Los Angeles Times survey
"The divide was...stark when it came to the proposed constitutional amendment: 70 percent of voters who said they did not know a gay person would vote for it, a position taken by just 49 percent of voters who said they knew a gay person."
So there it is - the daily lives of gay people are new and strange to some folks and a matter of ordinary experience to others. Exposure to gay people seems to determine attitudes. The "Love Rush," the spate of same sex marriages in California since May, is probably having its own effect, showing happy people whose unions don't cause the sky to fall.
Not surprisingly, unfamiliarity with gay people is greatest among elder voters. Gay people used to keep their personal lives secret. (I should point out that the notion of gay marriage is a very new thing among older gays too; we certainly didn't grow up expecting such acceptance would ever be possible!)
One of the most interesting arguments I ran across while researching how age influenced attitudes toward Prop. 8 was an article by Peter Levine refuting the notion that as we get older, we automatically get more conservative. His argument is statistical and not simple (go take a look if you like math), but his conclusions suggests that elders aren't out of sync with the rest of society:
"With the possible exception of those born in the 1930s (for whom we don't have much data), it appears that people grow more tolerant as they age...It's my sense that there may be a small age effect here: people become more tolerant of gays as they mature and get to know openly gay people...However, the biggest effect here is historical. Everyone is becoming more tolerant, regardless of age."
Anyone wishing to know more about the No on Prop. 8 campaign can check out Equality for All.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran tells us what she has learned about Working From Home - The Telecommuter Challenge.]