WASHINGTON — Most Americans suspect that President Obamawas motivated by politics, not policy, when he declared his support for same-sex marriage, according to a new poll released on Monday, suggesting that the unplanned way it was announced shaped public attitudes.
Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed by The New York Times and CBS News since the announcement said they thought that Mr. Obama had made it “mostly for political reasons,” while 24 percent said it was “mostly because he thinks it is right.” Independents were more likely to attribute it to politics, with nearly half of Democrats agreeing.
The results reinforce the concerns of White House aides and Democratic strategists who worried that the sequence of events leading up to the announcement last week made it look calculated rather than principled.
Mr. Obama, who had said since late 2010 that his position on the issue was “evolving,” finally proclaimed his support for same-sex marriage only after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. did so first in a television interview.
“If Biden hadn’t said something, I don’t think he would have said anything either,” Larry Gannon, 48, a graphic artist from Norwalk, Calif. and an independent, said in a follow-up interview.
Holly Wright, 67, an independent from Smithfield, Va., who works in the food industry, said she believed that Mr. Obama had concluded that more Americans approved of same-sex marriage. “He believes it will help him win the election,” she said. “In other words, say what the majority of the people want to hear.”
The survey results made it clear that the president was wading into a divisive area of American life, one that may not top the nation’s priority list but still has the potential to hurt him at the margins in elections in November. About 4 in 10, or 38 percent, of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 24 percent favor civil unions short of formal marriage. Thirty-three percent oppose any form of legal recognition. When civil unions are eliminated as an option, opposition to same-sex marriage rises to 51 percent, compared with 42 percent support.
The poll showed that relatively few voters consider same-sex marriage their top issue amid continued economic uncertainty, and more than half said it would make no difference in their choice for president. But among those who said Mr. Obama’s position would influence their vote, more said they would be less likely to vote for him as a result; in a close race, even a small shift in swing states could be costly.
The political consequences of the president’s announcement have absorbed Washington, with strategists on all sides poring through data to try to anticipate what it might mean in the fall. Many surveys have shown rising support nationally for same-sex marriage, especially among younger Americans. However, voters in more than 30 states have passed measures banning such unions, most recently those in North Carolina last week.
Mr. Obama’s team is counting on the notion that whatever he might lose in votes or intensity of support will be offset by increased excitement among young voters and his liberal base. His probable Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is banking on the idea that Mr. Obama’s position will turn off enough supporters of traditional marriage, including African-Americans, to help tip the race his way.
The situation remains so uncertain in part because, as the poll showed, the public is deeply conflicted on the issue. Consider the responses to two questions: Just 32 percent said the federal government should determine whether same-sex marriage is legal, rather than leaving it to the states. But 50 percent favored an amendment to the federal Constitution allowing marriage only between a man and a woman and overruling state laws to the contrary.
Mr. Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage appeared to have little effect on Americans’ view of the issue. More influential seems to be the increasing familiarity with people who are gay and lesbian. In a 2003 Times/CBS News poll, 44 percent of respondents said they had a colleague at work, close friend or relative who was gay, compared with 69 percent in the latest poll. Those who did were more likely to support legalizing same-sex marriage than those who did not.
“I might have been against it a long time ago, but then after meeting people who were gay, I changed my mind and had a different position,” said John Cornett, 70, a Democrat in Georgetown, Ky.
The new nationwide poll is based on telephone interviews conducted from May 11 through 13 on landlines and cellphones with 615 adults.
With less than six months until the election, Mr. Obama remains in a tight race with Mr. Romney. A month ago, a Times/CBS News poll showed the two tied at 46 percent each; the latest survey had the Republican challenger at 46 percent to the president’s 43 percent, an edge that was within the margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Mr. Obama’s vulnerable standing in the poll came despite rising optimism about the economy. About a third of voters said it was very or fairly good, the most since January 2008. More than a third said it was getting better, compared with a quarter who said it was getting worse. Jobs and the economy remain by far the most dominant issue, with 62 percent naming it their top priority and 19 percent their second highest. By contrast, just 7 percent chose same-sex marriage as the most important issue and 4 percent as the second-most important.
While most respondents said the candidates’ position on the issue would not affect their vote, about 4 in 10 said it would, and that played against Mr. Obama. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they were less likely to support Mr. Obama as a result, while 16 percent said they were more likely to. Many of those who described themselves as less likely to vote for Mr. Obama were Republicans who might not have anyway, but in a tight race, even small numbers can matter.
The sample size of the new poll was too small to break out comparisons by race, but aggregating four Times/CBS News surveys that asked the question over the last year opens a window into a racial dynamic that could be challenging for Mr. Obama.
Over all, black and white Americans divided on same-sex marriage in roughly similar numbers. But black Democrats were more skeptical than white Democrats. Forty-five percent of white Democrats supported legalizing marriage for gay couples, compared with 36 percent of black Democrats, while 35 percent of black Democrats opposed any legal recognition, compared with 28 percent of white Democrats.
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Dalia Sussman from New York. Marjorie Connelly, Allison Kopicki and Marina Stefan contributed reporting from New York.