U.S. viewpoints about LGBT rights are significant to political scientists because they reflect a widespread, and relatively sudden, turnaround in opinion, according to experts.
"It's probably as big a shift as we've seen in so short a time, as we've seen on any major issue," said John Poe of University of Kentucky. "The variables that used to explain a particular issue no longer do."
One such session at the annual conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, held at the Palmer House Hilton from April 17, addressed how public opinion of LGBT rights affects behavior in the voting booth.
Melissa Michelson of Menlo College added, "People are changing their minds, so we're trying to see why, and see what we can do to hurry that along."
John Hall of Auburn University said that, even in a school with a conservative student body, the majority of his students supported gay marriage.
But researchers are trying to address that dramatic shift by analyzing what factors play into that support. They've found that perceptions of LGBT rights were influenced by a number of characteristics, among them overall knowledge about politics and civics, level of education, strength of political partisanship and commitment to political ideology. Also significant were framing of the issueshow they are portrayed in the media and public arenaas well as whether individuals have any particular contact with LGBT persons.
Opinions about LGBT rights from higher ranks of political parties still carry some weight with partisans, Menlo said. "We would expect that [such an opinion] would make more Republicans think, 'If Marco Rubio can think that, I can think that too.'"
Linda Rhodebeck of University of Louisville added that voters are more often comfortable expressing a value if it conforms to their partisan identity.
Patricia Rodda of University of California at Irvine said that models for polling and opinion research don't necessarily travel across national borders, however. She looked at a poll gauging support for LGBTs in Mexico, and said that many personal characteristics used to predict support from Americans "don't have a significant power in this model." In the study Rodda utilizedwhich asked respondents if they'd be willing to have an LGBT person as a neighborpersons who indicated they were generally supportive of political parties and community institutions were most likely to be receptive of such a neighbor.