American Political Science Review

Research Article

Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness


a1 Columbia University


We study the effects of policy-specific public opinion on state adoption of policies affecting gays and lesbians, and the factors that condition this relationship. Using national surveys and advances in opinion estimation, we create new estimates of state-level support for eight policies, including civil unions and nondiscrimination laws. We differentiate between responsiveness to opinion and congruence with opinion majorities. We find a high degree of responsiveness, controlling for interest group pressure and the ideology of voters and elected officials. Policy salience strongly increases the influence of policy-specific opinion (directly and relative to general voter ideology). There is, however, a surprising amount of noncongruence—for some policies, even clear supermajority support seems insufficient for adoption. When noncongruent, policy tends to be more conservative than desired by voters; that is, there is little progay policy bias. We find little to no evidence that state political institutions affect policy responsiveness or congruence.


For helpful comments, we thank Bernd Beber, Deborah Beim, Tanya Domi, Robert Erikson, Andrew Gelman, Donald Haider-Markel, Fred Harris, John Huber, John Kastellec, Thad Kousser, Nolan McCarty, Kelly Rader, Robert Shapiro, Melissa Schwartzberg, Yu-Sung Su, and Gerald Wright. Earlier versions were presented at the 2008 State Politics and Policy Conference, Princeton University, SUNY Stony Brook, and the University of Iowa, and we thank participants for useful discussions. We thank the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research for use of the iPoll archive.