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Mark Regnerus, Disgraced Anti-Gay Researcher, Claims Marriage Equality Polls Are Biased

August 20, 2013 12:45 pm ET by Carlos Maza

One of the most widely discredited anti-gay social scientists tried to make the case that support for marriage equality in the U.S. is being inaccurately inflated by bad polling practices, ignoring overwhelming evidence that the majority of Americans favor marriage equality.

In an August 20 article for National Review Online, Mark Regnerus – an associate professor of sociology at UT Austin and notorious anti-gay activist – argued that polling data showing majority support for marriage equality has been skewed by flawed methodologies.

Regnerus makes three arguments to support his thesis, none of which stand up to serious scrutiny:

1. Question “Priming.” Regnerus blamed mainstream polling for using a technique known as “priming,” in which certain questions influence respondents’ answers to subsequent questions:

Gallup continues to ask a question about the legality of “homosexual relations” before it asks about same-sex marriage, a technique known as “priming,” or preparing survey-takers for subsequent questions. In their book News That Matters, political psychologists Donald Kinder and Shanto Iyengar document how priming shapes respondents’ answers to subsequent questions, particularly where sentiments about a previous question spill over. Gallup asks whether respondents “think gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal,” a question that most observers would assume is not even asked any more.

The problem with Regnerus’ theory is that many polls have found levels of support for marriage equality that matched Gallup’s without asking “priming” questions. Recent polls by CBS NewsBloombergNBC News, and CNN all found results mirroring Gallup’s, even without the use of priming questions.

2. The “Bradley Effect.” Regnerus also suggested that polls documenting support for marriage equality might be skewed by the “Bradley Effect,” meaning respondents will claim to support same-sex marriage to avoid being accused of bigotry but then vote differently once they reach the ballot box:

In 2010 Patrick Egan, assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University, compiled ten years of polling data about same-sex marriage in states that had voted on same-sex-marriage ballot initiatives. He found that public-opinion polls consistently underestimated ballot-box opposition to SSM.

[…]

[W]hen sensitive issues are at stake, people may feel pressure to give pollsters answers that sound enlightened, politically correct, or free of any trace of “bigotry” — a term that has reemerged as a club in the debate over same-sex marriage.

It is true that, historically, polls have overestimated support for marriage equality during state ballot initiatives. This is largely attributable to the ease with which anti-gay groups can spread misinformation and scare voters shortly before Election Day – a strategy that’s notoriously difficult for marginalized groups to combat.

As even Regnerus admits, though, the “Bradley Effect” wasn’t an issue during the 2012 elections, when polls accurately predicted final voter support for marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.

3. Question Wording. Regnerus’ final complaint is that the wording of questions about marriage equality skews results by focusing on “rights” and “benefits”:

Other suspects are the words with which survey questions are constructed. When polling organizations include the term “rights” in their question — as do Gallup, USA Today, and CNN/ORC — support for same-sex marriage is elevated: Each found 54 to 55 percent in favor. Survey respondents appear to react positively to words like “rights,” “freedom,” and “benefits,” and negatively to words like “ban.”

Recognizing this, Quinnipiac University’s pollsters stick to a very generic and brief question: “In general, do you support or oppose same-sex marriage?” The last time they asked it, in late April 2013 — about 30 days after the High Court’s twin decisions — 45 percent of respondents reported support and 47 percent said they opposed. Eight percent were unsure.

This is a common conservative criticism of anti-gay groups, which would prefer that polls ask questions about the general definition of marriage rather than the legality of same-sex marriages. These types of polls dotend to find higher levels of opposition to marriage equality, but only because they avoid the central question of the debate over same-sex marriage: whether same-sex couples should be legally allowed to enter into a government-sanctioned marriage contract and enjoy the rights and benefits provided by that contract. Regnerus’ may not like the fact that voters have a hard time choosing to deny civil rights to gay people, but that doesn’t mean the polling questions are inaccurate or biased.

Regenerus’ complaints about poll methodology on marriage are ironic considering his own reputation as a shill for anti-gay groups. He’s the author of one of the most widely discredited papers on same-sex parenting in anti-gay politics, produced with the intention of influencing the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on marriage equality. An internal audit conducted by the journal that published Regnerus’ paper bluntly called it “bullshit,” though Regnerus continues to tout his work in anti-gay circles. As Darren Sherkat, the man in charge of conducting the internal review of the publication of Regnerus’ paper, stated:

When we talk about Regnerus, I completely dismiss the study. It’s over. He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better. [emphasis added]

Regnerus’ credibility when it comes to dictating appropriate research methodology is  questionable at best.