A majority of Marylanders polled this month said they want to legalize same-sex marriage, but significant numbers of people in other states also told pollsters they supported the issue, then voted against it at the ballot box.
A Gonzales Research poll released Wednesday shows 51 percent of registered voters in the state support Question 6, which would allow same-sex marriage if approved this fall, while just 43 percent oppose it.
While supporters like their chances, polls in other states have often overestimated support for gay marriage -- a pattern that analysts say is due to many respondents concealing their opposition out of fear that it might sound politically incorrect.
"There's still this sense that it is a quasi-discriminatory belief to hold, and some people are not comfortable giving it to even an anonymous person," said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "In the end, the 'anti' vote always outperforms the polling data."
Thirty-two states have put same-sex marriage on the ballot since 1998. All have rejected it.
Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington will decide this issue this November. Recent polling in all four states shows gay marriage supporters tied or in the lead, but this isn't the first time polls have drawn such conclusions.
In 2009, California's Proposition 8 -- an amendment that sought to ban gay marriage -- passed 52 percent to 48 percent, even after polls leading up to Election Day showed voters opposed it by margins ranging from 3 to 8 percentage points.
The amendment was later overturned by a federal court. The ruling has since been appealed to the Supreme Court, which could consider it during its upcoming term.
That same year, several polls showed that Maine voters narrowly supported upholding a law to legalize gay marriage, only to have the law struck down by 53 percent of the voters on Election Day.
This year, a North Carolina amendment to ban gay marriage this spring was expected to pass by about 15 points, but ended up passing by a 21-point margin.
Mr. Eberly chalked these results up to voters feeling free to say "no" in the anonymity of the polling booth. While Maryland gay marriage supporters are excited about their 8-point advantage in the Gonzales poll, he said they should be worried about the 6 percent of voters who were undecided.
"I wouldn't be surprised if a large portion of that 6 percent are opposed but aren't comfortable saying it," he said.
Maryland Delegate Neil C. Parrott said he thinks many people on the fence will be inclined to support traditional marriage after weighing the issue in the next few weeks.
"When people go to vote, they have to think how this is going to affect their family and kids," said Mr. Parrott, a Washington Republican who helped lead the effort to get the issue on this fall's ballot. "In those terms, it's an easy decision."
Nonetheless, gay marriage supporters are confident they will win on Election Day, pointing to what they consider changing attitudes among the electorate and a political campaign that has been far more visible than that of their opponents.
"This will be a close race, and we thought that all along," said Kevin Nix, spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality. "National polling and state polling have changed dramatically in the last four years, so I think we're in a new environment."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and Marylanders for Marriage Equality have led a national fundraising campaign that has raised millions with help from celebrities.
The National Organization for Marriage and the Maryland Marriage Alliance have helmed a more low-key effort in opposition.
"It's momentum that we clearly enjoy, but we're taking nothing for granted," said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat. "We're going to keep fighting, and we're going to show a different path in Maryland in 2012."
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