This is a detailed look at the numbers behind the chances of success for the (currently theoretical) effort to repeal Proposition 8 in 2012. Plus a discussion of various other not-so-easily quantifiable factors that could affect the vote.
For those of you not interested in the math, skipping down to the Demographics Isn't Destiny section is advised.
I'll look at three factors that will cause the 2008 vote percentages to change:
-- The effect of teenagers registering to vote
-- The effect of those 65 and older dying
-- The effect social phenomenon might be having on everyone's attitudes
towards same-sex marriage.
For those who just want a brief synopsis, here are the bottom line conclusions:
- Proposition 8 cannot be defeated in 2012 by age-demographic changes alone.
- All evidence points to other factors at work beyond age-demographic change.
- The totality of evidence suggests that it is likely that Proposition 8 can be overturned by ballot initiative, but it by no means assured.
- Those who want to repeal Proposition 8 have a powerful tool that no one else has been able to avail themselves of. This might be an Ace in the Hole.
The Basic Facts
2008 Proposition 8 outcome statistics:
Calulating the effect of new, younger voters.
In English, the net number of additional votes for marriage equality per year due to teenagers turning 18 can be calulated by: Taking the population of California, multiplying by the percentage of young people, multiplying by the percentage of young people who actually vote, multiplying by the fraction of young people who turn 18 per year, and finally multiplying by the percentage effect of there being more young people in favor of marriage equality than there are opposed (so if 60% of new voters are in favor, and 40% are opposed, the net effect is +20%).
Here are the factors that go into the calculation:
California population: 37253956
(Source: 2010 census)
Percent of California population under 18: 25.5%
Fraction under 18 who will turn 18 in 1 year between 08 and 12: 1/18
(depends on the exact number of births in each year, could be off slightly,
if, for example, there are more 1-4 year olds than 15-18 year olds)
Rate of voter participation of 18-20 year olds: 0.41%
this is the national rate; this could be different in California and less
because of relatively large number of legal and illegal immingrants in
California who cannot vote.
Differential % vote (% for repeal less % against): 33.3%
(the younger one is the more likely one is to favor same-sex marriage; this
assumes a 2/3 - 1/3 split for 18-22 year olds, which is consistent with
Using these baseline numbers and multiplying out we get:
37253956 x 0.255 x 1/18 x 0.41 x 0.333 = 72056
additional votes for same sex marriage gained from young people per year.
We can use more pessimistic numbers that assume:
-- more young children than teenagers (1/19 are teens instead of 1/18)
-- 10% less voter participation among youngsters than the national average
-- instead of a 2/3 - 1/3 split, a 64-36 split
Doing this and multiplying out we get:
37253956 x 0.255 x 1/19 x 0.37 x 0.28 = 51799 additional votes per year.
Or we could use a slightly more optimistic assumption of a 68%-32% split in
favor of same-sex marriage for the youngest voters and get
37253956 x 0.255 x 1/18 x 0.41 x 0.36 = 77898 additional votes per year.
Therefore in four years repeal of Proposition 8 should gain, as a result
of new, younger voters, approximately
-- 200,000 votes at a minimum
-- 288,000 votes using baseline assumptions
-- 310,000 votes with an optimistic scenario
Calculating the effect of older voters dying.
Slightly different factors go into this calculation.
In English, we can calculate the number of votes lost per year due to older people dying by: multiplying the population of California by the death rate and then multiplying by the fraction of people who are 65 and older that constitute that death rate, then multiplying by the voter participation rate of those 65 and older, and finally multiplying by the percentage effect of there being more old people opposed to marriage equality than there are in favor (so if 61% of older voters are opposed, and 39% are in favor, the net effect is -22%).
California population: 37253956
(Source: 2010 census)
California death rate in 2009: 0.61%
Fraction of people who die who are 65 and older in 2009: 72%
Rate of voter participation for those 65 and older: 68.1%
this is the national rate; this could be different in California, and less
because of immigration status
Differential % vote (% against repeal less % for repeal): 24%
the older you are the more likely you are to be against same-sex marriage;
this assumes a 62-38 split, which is consistent with polling. However, since
the oldest people die at the highest rates and the older you are the more
you are against it, this could be a conservative estimate of the effect.
Using these baseline numbers and multiplying out we get:
37253956 x 0.0061 x 0.72 x 0.681 x 0.24 = 26742
votes against same sex marriage lost from old people per year.
Using a more pessismistic voter participation rate of 5% less, with a lesser
spread of 0.20 (60-40) instead of 0.24 in opposition:
37253956 x 0.0061 x 0.72 x 0.631 x 0.20 = 20649
Using a higher voter participation rate of 69% for Californians and a greater spread of opinion of 0.28 (64%-36%):
37253956 x 0.0061 x 0.72 x 0.70 x 0.28 = 31611
Therefore in four years supporters of Proposition 8 should lose, as a result of those 65 and older dying, approximately:
-- 80,000 votes conservatively
-- 100,000 votes using baseline assumptions
-- 125,000 votes with optimistic assumptions
Calculating the total demographic effect, and figuring out how quickly the vote gap is closing:
In four years the net change in votes should then be (adding the two effects):
-- 280,000 at a minimum
-- 388,000 using baseline assumptions
-- 435,000 optimistically
Because their are so many more young voters than older voters, even though younger voters vote at a much lower rate than older voters, the bigger effect by a factor of almost three is new, younger voters, voting.
Recall that the differential in 2008 was just about 600,000 votes and about 4.5% Therefore, given solely demographic changes, with all else being equal, Prop 8 repeal comes up short:
-- 320,000 votes short at a maximum
(51.2% - 48.8%, 2.4% remaining gap, closed 2.1% of gap)
-- 212,000 votes short using baseline assumptions
(50.8% - 49.2%, 1.6% remaining gap, closed 2.9% of gap)
-- 165,000 votes short being optimistic
(50.6% - 49.4%, 1.2% remaining gap, closed 3.3% of gap)
The gap is closing at the rate of:
-- 0.525% per year using pessimistic assumptions
-- 0.725% per year using baseline assumptions
-- 0.825% per year using optimistic assumptions
Demographics isn't destiny.
Of course changing demographics isn't the only factor -- not even the most important one if polling on marriage equality is to be believed.
We know that national marriage equality polling has shown a remarkable favorable change in the nation's attitude toward same-sex marrige over the last few years, going from 40% approval to 50% approval, and going from 53% disapproval to 48% disapproval, a change of 15% in three and a half years, or more than 4% a year.
Let's be conservative and assume that this rate of change is exaggerated for whatever reason. Let's consider the smallest rate of change the graph will allow us: since 1997, marriage equality has gone from an approval rate of 30% to 50%, and a disapproval rate of 63% to 48%, a change of 35% in 14 years, or 2.5% per year.
Whether two and a half percent or four percent per year, if demographics at most constitutes 0.825% of that, the rest of the change has to be coming from somewhere else: attitudes changing due to friends coming out, media exposure, and general societal acceptance perhaps. There's no way to tease out exactly what is responsible, but something other than demographics surely must be!
Lies, Damned Lies, and Polling.
The objection that is raised to these polling results is a valid one: these nationwide marriage equality polls ask adults, not likely voters, and they poll all Americans, not just Californians.
So let's look at the California polling data we do have which deals with likely voters:
2008: 47.75% - 52.25% The actual results (as 'likely' a voter as you can get!)
2010: 50% - 43% Field poll July, 2010.
2010: 46% - 44% PPP September, 2010.
2011: 45% - 45% Binder Research, April 2011.
Average of polling results: 47% - 44%
In other words, in two and a half years, all the data we have, aggregated, about likely voters shows that the gap has gone from 4.5% against marriage equality to 3% in favor of marriage equality, a 7.5% change. Over two and a half years that comes to a 3% change per year, reasonably consistent with the national polling results.
(If we include the only other recent California poll that I know of, taken by sampling registered voters instead, the result would be even more stunning, as that poll shows a 51% - 40% spread).
What might be the problems with these results?
- What we're not seeing is polling over 50%, so there is always the fear the the undecided will break big against marriage equality.
- There is the fear that 'protect the children' ads unleashed in the last months of the campaign will (again) convince some people to switch from a pro-equality position to voting against repeal, ending in disaster.
- There is the possibility that the polls suffer from a 'Bradley affect', where people tell pollsters (especially live pollsters) they support marriage equality, but in the privacy of the voting booth do not.
- Some people in California are ornery and just vote 'No' on every ballot initiative.
An Ace Up Our Sleeves?
Fair enough. And there's no clear way of testing whether any or all of these theories might prove true in November of 2012. But there is one factor in marriage equality's favor, which I think is quite important and as yet underrated.
Unlike in California in 2008, or in the upcoming vote in Minnesota in 2012, or in any of the 31 votes taken in past years in which marriage equality supporters have lost, the proponents of marriage equality get to write the amendment.
Instead of talking about 'marriage between a man and a woman' the amendment can talk about 'equality for all'. Instead of talking about marriage being 'recognized' and 'valid' the amendment can talk about marriage as a 'fundamental right'. Instead of talking about marriage as an 'institution' the amendment can say that no one is to be discriminated against or denied rights.
-- equality for all
-- a fundamental right
-- against discrimination and denial of rights
These are powerful words. And wording matters (see 'MN Ballot' section)! Like a Jedi's power of suggestion, shades of meaning can affect those who are
weak minded not paying all that much attention. And this time the proponents of repeal can shape and shade the words!
So what's the straight dope?
If the gap is closing at less than 1% a year, as demographics alone suggests, Proposition 8 cannot be repealed; the ballot measure would fail by a little less than 49% - 51%, a heartbreaking loss.
If the gap is closing at 3% a year, as estimates based on national and statewide polling data suggest (and as observations of social media would seem to confirm) then repealing Proposition 8 will win by a tidy margin (53.5% - 46.5%). At 4% it would be a blowout.
It's impossible to know what 'the truth' is. But there is one truth indeed: you cannot win if you do not fight.