The debate about how to phrase the same-sex marriage question on November's ballot has just begun, with Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers proposing a very simple option: "Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?"
Of course opponents have objected, saying those words don't say anything about the societal catastrophe they are sure will follow its passage. But more oddly — and, it turns out, potentially against their self-interest — supporters of same-sex marriage also want the question revised. Specifically, according to Mainers United for Marriage leader Matt McTighe, they want it to ask: "Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?"
The polling to date suggests Summers's version of the question is (perhaps unintentionally, given his open opposition) better for marriage proponents. In March, Public Policy Polling asked, "In general, do you think same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal?" Results were 54 percent in favor, 41 opposed, and 5 percent unsure (with a 2.8-percent margin of error). In April the Maine People's Resource Center asked people's opinion on "allowing same-sex couples to be legally married in Maine" and found 58 percent for, and 40 percent against (with an error margin of 3.1 percent).
The March PPP poll also asked the question McTighe's way, and found less support (as well as less opposition and more undecideds): 47 percent for, 32 percent against, and 21 percent not sure. The WBUR poll earlier this month also asked McTighe's question, and also found support weaker than Summers's more straightforward version: 55 percent in favor, 36 opposed, and 9 percent declining to answer (with a margin of error there of 4.4 percent).
So advocates appear, at the moment, to be requesting a ballot wording that gives them less support, in hopes that the lower opposition and greater undecided pool will allow them to prevail over the religious opposition. Maine media, so far, have treated the two questions — in poll terms, at least — as functionally the same. They're not. McTighe knows it, Summers knows it, and most importantly, the people facing the questions know it — that's why they answered differently to the different questions. Sadly, it's journalists who appear last to find out.
Maine political writers are also overlooking a major flaw in the WBUR poll (which has gotten criticism for other reasons, but not this one): Andrew Ian Dodge isn't one of the options. In a different question, pollsters asked: in the Senate election, "if the candidates were Independent Angus King, Republican Charlie Summers, or Democrat Cynthia Dill, for whom would you vote?"
The name order was rotated in the actual questioning. But Dodge should have been there. He's the Tea Party-backed candidate who dropped out of the Republican Party to run as an independent, and was first into the race, setting up to challenge Olympia Snowe before she announced her retirement.
While he's widely believed to have little chance of winning, the Tea Party vote is least likely to migrate to any of the other three, and shows an element of the Maine electorate that — whether you agree with it or not — holds sway in some areas.