As the Nov. 6 election nears, likely Maryland voters are evenly divided on whether to make same-sex marriage legal in the state after opposition has grown in recent weeks, according to a new opinion poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun.
Meanwhile, most voters are against Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to expand gambling in Maryland, the poll found. Voters oppose the measure 54 percent to 39 percent — figures that are virtually unchanged over the past month despite a multimillion-dollar barrage of television ads seeking to sway public opinion.
The two fiercely contested ballot issues have added suspense to an election in which the outcome of most Maryland congressional races and the state's presidential vote haven't been in question.
"It comes down to turnout," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, which conducted the telephone survey of 801 likely voters. He noted that the poll, conducted Oct. 20 to Oct. 23, found that the same-sex marriage measure and the gambling plan face strong opposition from older voters and weekly churchgoers — groups that reliably turn out to vote.
"It's very important who comes to the polls," he said, "and it's very important who goes down the ballot" to cast a vote on the two measures — the last of seven statewide referendum questions.
Maryland voters are evenly divided on the Dream Act, the law that would give some illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates, with 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
And likely voters are also split on whether to approve the new congressional district map drawn by O'Malley and the majority Democrats in Annapolis, with 36 percent in favor, 33 percent opposed and 29 percent undecided.
A month ago, the same-sex marriage question was ahead by 10 percentage points — 49 percent to 39 percent — in an earlier Sun poll. The contest is now a dead heat in part because some African-Americans who supported the measure or were undecided are now saying no.
The numbers have moved amid television and radio commercials from the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes same-sex marriage, and stepped-up efforts by pastors preaching against Question 6.
Much of the advertising is focused on African-American voters, a bloc that traditionally opposed same-sex marriage but had been warming to the idea. In late September, the Sun poll showed a majority of blacks in favor of Question 6 — evidently a high-water mark.
This time, the poll found 50 percent of black voters oppose the measure and 42 percent support it.
Yvonne Johnson, 65, of Prince George's County is among those who have decided to vote against legalization of same-sex marriage. "I'm not against gay people, she said. "I just don't think they should change what is in the Bible."
Growing opposition to the measure is not surprising, based on the experience in other states. Same-sex marriage measures have been defeated in all 32 states in which they have been on the ballot. In addition to Maryland, Maine and Washington state will also vote on legalization this fall. Minnesota has a ballot measure that would constitutionally ban same-sex marriage.
In Maryland as in other states, opponents of same-sex marriage have raised less money than supporters. Opponents say they are accustomed to being outspent during these campaigns and thus typically unleash their advertising push in the final weeks.
The new Sun poll found that 70 percent of the respondents who attend a religious service once a week are against Question 6.
"I'm a Catholic," said Laura Long, a 46-year-old Annapolitan who says she will vote no. "There are going to be some things not everybody can do," she said, saying marriage is one of them. "Leave it as religious sacrament."
But Charles McDougle, a 61-year-old black man from Temple Hills, said he sees same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue. "I'm not a theologian," he said. "I'm not trying to get into all the inner workings of the Bible on this marriage question."
A bright spot for supporters is that a slight majority of likely female voters — 51 percent — support same-sex marriage, the poll found.
June Stouffer, 64, of Washington County said the key to her decision to vote yes on Question 6 is "the fact that religious personnel are not required to marry people if it is against their beliefs."
Younger voters — those under 35 — are among the strongest supporters of the measure, the poll found. But they are also a group known for low voter turnout, Raabe noted.
The O'Malley-backed gambling expansion plan has brought Marylanders of different political views together — in opposition. Likely Democratic voters say they oppose the measure by a narrow margin, while independents and Republicans are strongly against it. Weekly churchgoers are particularly hostile to the idea, rejecting it by 67 percent to 27 percent.