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Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness


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.

Corresponding author
Jeffrey R. Lax is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg., 420 W. 118th Street, New York, NY 10027 (
Justin H. Phillips is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg., 420 W. 118th Street, New York, NY 10027 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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