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NBC/WSJ poll: 53 percent support gay marriage

Two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two highly publicized gay-marriage cases, a majority of Americans continue to say they support same-sex marriage, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. 

Fifty-three percent of respondents favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, which is up 2 points since the NBC/WSJ survey last asked this question in December, though that increase is within the poll’s margin of error.

Forty-two percent oppose gay marriage – also up 2 points since late last year.

By party, 73 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents back gay marriage, while 66 percent of Republicans oppose it.

Strikingly, nearly 8-in-10 respondents (79 percent) say they know or work with someone who is gay or lesbian, which is an increase of 14 points since December and 17 points since 2004.

However, only 15 percent say that knowing or working with someone gay makes them more likely to back same-sex marriage; 4 percent say it makes them less likely to support it, and more than half say it doesn’t make a difference.

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images file photo

Equal rights supporters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments March 26, in California's proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that defines marriage only between a man and a woman.

These numbers come after numerous Democratic politicians, plus a handful of Republicans, have recently announced their support for gay marriage. They also come as the Supreme Court is expected to decide two different cases this summer – one on the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law which prohibits the government from recognizing gay marriages performed in states where they are legal, and the other on California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in that state.

The poll also finds that 63 percent of respondents believe the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are legal, and 56 percent think that the question of allowing gay marriage should be left to a federal standard rather than to the states.

In reversal, majority thinks abortion should be illegal
At the same time that general support for gay marriage has increased – albeit within the margin of error – so has opposition to abortion.

According to the survey, a combined 52 percent say that abortion should be illegal either with exceptions or without them, versus a combined 45 percent who say it should be legal either “always” or “most of the time.”

This is a reversal from the NBC/WSJ poll in January, when a majority – for the first time – said abortion should be legal in some form or fashion.

Measuring the values debate
The poll also gauges public sentiment on other questions involving social and moral issues.

Asked to choose what should be a more important goal for society – either promoting greater respect for traditional values or encouraging greater tolerance – 50 percent picked traditional values, and 44 selected greater tolerance.

That’s a significant change from when this question was last asked in 1999, when 60 percent chose traditional values and 29 percent sided with tolerance.

As the Republican Party tries to find their message on gun control in the wake of Newtown and on gay marriage before the Supreme Court rulings this summer, Stuart Stevens, Romney's 2012 campaign manager, offers them some advice.

Notably, this movement toward tolerance comes from Democrats and self-described independents – but not from Republicans. (In 1999, 76 percent of Republicans said promoting traditional values was a more important goal vs. 77 percent say that now.)

In another change, half of respondents (50 percent) say that society’s most serious problems stem primarily from economic and financial pressures.

View full poll results here

But in past NBC/WSJ polls – in 1994 and 1996 – majorities said those problems came mainly from a decline in moral values.

And Americans give the Democratic and Republican parties either mixed or poor marks when it comes to social and cultural issues.

By 47 percent to 22 percent, respondents say they disagree with the GOP’s approach to social and cultural issues, and they disagree with Democrats by a 38-percent-to-37 percent margin.

On the parties’ approach to looking out for the middle class, the numbers are even worse – they disagree with Republicans by 51 percent to 24 percent, and with Democrats by 42 percent to 33 percent.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents) from April 5-8, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.