Education played bigger role than race in approving gay marriage ban

Filed under Black, Florida, Politics, Race, Research on Tuesday, September 1, 2009.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The level of voters’ education — not the large numbers of blacks who turned out for the first time to cast ballots for Barack Obama — best explains the passage of a Florida law banning gay marriage, a new University of Florida study suggests.

Many pundits claimed that newly registered black voters inspired by Obama’s candidacy to flock to the polls resulted in states narrowly approving amendments that opposed legalizing gay unions, said Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor and the study’s co-author.

However, Smith’s study found that education levels were about five times as important as race in Florida counties’ approval of Amendment 2, which defined marriage as a legal bond strictly between a man and a woman in the state’s constitution. Smith is scheduled to present the findings to the American Political Science Association in Toronto on Thursday.

“Our research challenges the assumption that the surge of black voters who turned out in unusually large numbers in support of Obama were also in favor of banning gay marriage,” Smith said. “We found that it really wasn’t race that led to an increased support for a ban on gay marriage but whether or not someone was educated.”

Controlling for other socioeconomic and political factors, for each additional 1 percent of a county’s population with a bachelor of arts degree, there was nearly an equal 1 percent decrease in support for Amendment 2, Smith said. By comparison, every 1 percent increase in a county’s black population led to only two-tenths of a percentage point increase in support for Amendment 2, he said.

“Education is so important because it increases exposure to those who are different,” he said. “Studies show very clearly that the more educated people are the more tolerant they are of differences.”

Because blacks tend to be conservative on social issues and attend church in large numbers, blacks were expected to hurt prospects for legalizing gay marriage, Smith said. Dozens of post-election news stories and political blogs drew upon exit polls to blame the surge of black voters for the passage of anti-gay marriage measures in California and Florida, he said.

According to CNN exit polls in Florida, 71 percent of black voters cast ballots for Amendment 2, compared with 60 percent of white voters, Smith said. Even among young people between the ages of 18 and 29, who tend to be more supportive of same-sex marriage, 71 percent of blacks supported the measure, compared with 49 percent of whites, he said.

But respondents may feel pressured to give socially acceptable answers in exit polls, and the margin of error is high because of the small sample of blacks, Smith said.

“Our analysis suggests that these public opinion polls may have overstated the extent to which black and white voters differed on the issue of same-sex marriage,” he said. “We found that party identification, education and religiosity were much stronger predictors of a respondent’s attitude toward gay marriage than race was.”

Gay rights groups have questioned whether the black community is worth engaging in their efforts to win approval for same-sex marriages, Smith said. States that have passed these measures, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Maine, are largely white, he said.

“A very vibrant debate is going on in the gay and lesbian community about whether there should be any outreach towards minorities, particularly African-Americans,” he said. “Our research shows that writing off the black community, especially these newly mobilized voters that Obama brought into the fold, is very short-sighted.”

Equality Florida, one of the two major organizations in the state to campaign against Amendment 2, targeted blacks in its efforts to oppose the measure, Smith said. In studying polling data before the election, the group’s leaders believed blacks, though socially conservative, could be persuaded to align themselves with the gay rights cause, he said.

“They were able to approach and engage the African-American community that this is an issue of importance to the black community by making arguments along civil rights lines,” he said. “Equality Florida just lacked the financial resources to make the case to Obama supporters.”

Smith collaborated with Stephanie Slade, a political science graduate student at American University who did the research while an honors undergraduate student at UF.



Cathy Keen,, 352-392-0186
Daniel Smith,, 352-273-2346