A group opposed to ending the ban on openly gay troops in the military has released a national survey that challenges earlier independent polls asserting that a wide percentage of Americans favor repealing the ban.
The Military Culture Coalition hopes the survey by a Republican pollster will help persuade moderate to conservative Democrats to oppose President Obama’s campaign promise to lift the ban as final votes in Congress loom.
The question is, is the poll too late? The House as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee have passed repeal legislation. That leaves the full Senate vote, a House-Senate conference bill, and then Mr. Obama’s signature to end the 1993 law that states that open homosexuality is a threat to combat readiness.
The policy under which open gays can be expelled is known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, who favors keeping the law, blocked the 2011 defense budget bill — which included a provision repealing the ban — during a lively floor debate with committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. Mr. McCain’s maneuver means that, under Senate rules, Mr. Levin will need to garner 60 votes just to begin debate when the congressional summer recess ends next month.
“There will not be unanimous consent to bring it to the floor. They’ve already tried, and it will require cloture to proceed in its current form,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
A May Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans “continue to favor allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military.”
The Military Culture Coalition, which includes such socially conservative groups as the Family Research Council and the Center for Military Readiness, took a different approach.
Its poll by the Polling Co., headed by Kellyanne Conway, was limited to people likely to vote in the November elections. Independent polls point to Republicans picking up House and Senate seats. The poll also sought opinions on how the military should treat personnel who oppose homosexuality.
The bottom line: 48 percent of respondents favor keeping the ban; 45 percent want it repealed.
Fifty-two percent agreed with the statement that “even if the current law is overturned, the military should not attempt to change personal attitudes and feelings toward human sexuality.”
Among Democrats, 50 percent said military people should be punished if they do not change their attitudes toward gays.
Among military respondents who are likely voters, 57 percent support the ban; 34 percent want it overturned.
“The Military Culture Coalition Survey could be decisive in the debate, which is still ahead,” said Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness.
“Unlike previous polls, it asked questions about the actual law,” she said. “For example, the coalition survey found that 52 percent of likely voters opposed the imposition of career-ending penalties against military personnel and chaplains who do not support homosexuality. In addition, 55 percent of respondents opposed modified training and education programs to enforce acceptance of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the military.”
Addressing the gap between the coalition survey and other polls such as Gallup’s, Mrs. Donnelly said: “The survey gap suggests there is no public consensus for overturning the law. Findings suggesting negative political consequences for legislators voting for homosexuals in the military and abortions in military hospitals could make a difference in blocking passage of the pending defense-authorization bill.”
Aaron Belkin, who directs the University of California at Santa Barbara-based Palm Center, an organization that publishes studies to support open gays in the ranks, all but dismissed the Military Culture Coalition poll.
“I do know that over the past four years, there have been at this point probably about 17 or 18 polls that have found between 56 and 81 percent of the public favored allowing gays to serve openly,” he said.
“There’s the possibility that the other polls just got it wrong, the other 17 or 18 polls got it wrong, and this one poll got it right, either because the other polls just didn’t know what they were doing or because public opinion has changed,” Mr. Belkin said.
“The other possibility is there was something about this poll, in particular the question wording, that drove the poll down. I did note they asked the question in kind of a leading way. It was almost a little bit of a ‘push poll.’”
Concerning Mr. McCain’s campaign to block a Senate vote on the proposed repeal, Mr. Belkin said: “I think McCain is trying to pump himself up for political reasons.”
Mr. Belkin said the “real issue” is whether Mr. Obama orders the military to open its ranks in December, after the Pentagon completes its study, or accedes to the Pentagon, which may want to phase in the change over the next year.
“That report is going to call for lifting of the ban and implementation of nondiscrimination measures,” he said. “But the Pentagon may ask for additional time. And so there’s a question as to whether the administration will just say, ‘No. A year is enough time to study. Let’s move it.’ Or whether they’re going to keep delaying.”
Mr. McCain, who polls show is leading a primary contest against a conservative challenger, opposes a vote on repeal until the Defense Department completes the far-reaching study on how open gays would affect unit readiness, housing and family benefits.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who insisted on a study before lifting the ban, said the surveys and focus groups are to show how to let gays serve, not whether it will happen.
Mr. Levin did not want to put off a committee vote, even though the four chiefs of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy urged him to delay it. Instead, he won passage of language that repeals the ban, but gives the Pentagon time to phase in the change.
During an Aug. 5 floor debate, Mr. McCain lashed out at Mr. Levin for attaching a hate-crimes amendment last year to the defense bill and spending two weeks debating it.
“It was a betrayal of the men and women serving his country,” Mr. McCain said.
On the debate about gays in the military, Mr. McCain said, “it’s again, the chairman of the committee, and the majority leader and the other side moving forward with a social agenda on legislation that was intended to ensure this nation’s security. My greatest concern, of course, is about repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ without any survey being done to find its effect on battle effectiveness and morale, which we were assured would take place before the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ And it is purely a political promise on the part of the president of the United States. … And it’s disgraceful to have it on this legislation without a survey being done.”
Mr. Levin responded that if the bill is allowed to reach the floor, “the decision will not be left up to the Armed Services Committee. It will be left up to the United States Senate.”
Mr. Levin said the committee bill requires Mr. Gates to certify that there would be no negative effect on morale. “The place to debate these policies is on the floor of the Senate,” Mr. Levin said.
Part of the Pentagon’s overall study involved a broad questionnaire for 400,000 active and reserve personnel.
Among the questions are:
• “In your career, have you ever worked in a unit with a co-worker you believed to be homosexual?”
• “Have you been assigned to share bath facilities with an open-bay shower that is also used by a service member you believed to be homosexual?”
• “If a wartime situation made it necessary for you to share a room, berth or field tent with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian service member, which are you most likely to do?” Options include doing nothing or asking to be moved.
• “If ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed and a gay or lesbian service member attended a military social function with a same-sex partner, which are you most likely to do?” Options include staying or leaving.
The Pentagon does not ask whether service members think the ban should be removed.
“It is obvious that the administration does not want to hear the answer,” Mrs. Donnelly said.