Five weeks before the election, a measure to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland has seen a surge of support and is now favored by likely voters, 49 percent to 39 percent, a new Baltimore Sun poll has found.
But at this stage, most voters are opposed to the gambling expansion law, according to the poll. And the electorate is conflicted about a measure to give illegal immigrants more access to higher education, with similar percentages supporting the law and opposing it.
The outcome of all three referendums will be decided by a Maryland electorate in which the majority Democrats are expected to turn out in large numbers to support President Barack Obama. He leads Republican Mitt Romney among state voters, 57 percent to 34 percent.
A big Democratic turnout could help supporters of the gay marriage and tuition initiatives, according to pollster Steve Raabe. But the highly volatile gambling issue isn't likely to break along party lines.
"There's tremendous money being spent by both sides on political advertising, and the messages in those ads are provocative," said Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based research firm that conducted the poll. "Given that, this question could still move dramatically between now and election day."
The telephone survey of 804 likely voters was conducted Sept. 25 to 27. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
Voter turnout in Maryland is expected to be driven by the presidential election and include a high percentage of African-Americans. The poll assumes that 23 percent of state voters will be African-American, closely mirroring 2008, when blacks accounted for 25 percent of the Maryland vote.
A high black turnout was a prospect once viewed with trepidation by proponents of same-sex marriage. In March, an OpinionWorks poll found less than a third of African-Americans supported the measure.
Since then, however, there's been a dramatic shift in the attitudes of black voters, according to the new Sun poll. It found more than half of likely black voters favor legalizing same-sex marriage, compared with a quarter who are opposed.
That helps to explain the turnabout in statewide attitudes since then. In March, the OpinionWorks poll found 43 percent of likely voters opposed and only 40 percent in favor.
Raabe noted that since March, President Obama has voiced his support for the issue, and the Democratic Party included it for the first time in its platform. Other high-profile African-Americans also have been vocal in their support, including Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the national board of the NAACP.
Delores N. Jenkins, an 81-year-old African-American resident of Baltimore, said she is among those who will vote to give gays and lesbians the right to marry. "They pay taxes like anybody else," she said. "They should have the right to pick their own partners. No one should tell them who they should or shouldn't be with."
The 10-point margin of support for same-sex marriage indicates a profound shift. Same-sex marriage supporters have lost in all 32 states where the issue has been put to voters. This fall, measures to legalize gay marriage are also on the ballot in Maine and Washington state, and there's a fourth voter initiative to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.
While the poll results may be encouraging for Maryland's same-sex marriage proponents, Rabbe cautioned that it's unclear whether the support will hold once opponents launch an expected media blitz.
"We don't know how strong it is," said Raabe. He said he could envision a successful effort to bring more black voters back into the 'no' column. "For opponents, you'd want to be in the African-American community messaging hard," he said.
Raabe noted that the largest pool of undecided voters is in Baltimore City where 21 percent don't have an opinion on the issue.
Voters on both sides are equally passionate. The poll found 38 percent of respondents "strongly" support same-sex marriage, while 35 percent "strongly" believe it should be illegal. That indicates voters on both sides will be motivated to go to the polls, Raabe said.
Fervent opposition is running especially high among rural Marylanders such as Lisa Fusco, a 46-year-old Navy worker from St. Mary's County.
"A man and a woman are the only two who can reproduce and keep society going," she said. She believes altering the definition of marriage could erode the institution. "Does it mean you have the right to marry a monkey? A dog?"
The measure enjoys wide approval among Maryland Democrats: 60 percent of them support it, while only 26 percent of Republicans are in favor.
Voters under 35 support same-sex marriage 61 percent to 22 percent. They include Matthew Jablonski, a 26-year-old graphic designer from Montgomery County.
"My family and I do know some very nice men who are married, and we want to support people like them," he said.