CBS News Poll analysis by the CBS News Polling Unit: Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto.
A new CBS News/New York Times Poll shows a solid majority of Americans support legal recognition for same-sex couples - though not necessarily through the official act of marriage - and the number of people who do support full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples is significantly higher among younger generations.
Overall, 38 percent of those who responded to the survey said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, just like any other couple. Another 24 percent said civil unions should be used to grant same-sex couples legal rights similar to male-female partnerships. Combined, that means 62 percent - close to two thirds - of Americans believe that same-sex unions should be recognized by law.
Of all those who participated, 33 percent said there should be no legal recognition for same-sex couples.
While the number of those in younger generations who completely oppose any legal recognition for same-sex couples remains nearly identical to the larger population - about a third in total - far more people from this subgroup favor full marriage rights over civil unions.
Of all the 18- to 44-year-olds who participated in the poll, 53 percent said same-sex couples should be granted full marriage rights. And while almost a quarter of the entire population feels civil unions are more appropriate, as stated above, that number shrinks to just 17 percent when the younger group is looked at in isolation. Thirty percent of those between 18 and 44 said no legal recognition was appropriate.
A number of proponents - from gay and lesbian rights activists to politicians and pop culture figures - have pointed to age as a defining characteristic in the American marriage debate in the wake of President Obama's watershed public backing for same-sex marriage last week.
Mr. Obama himself suggested that future generations of voting Americans were likely to push the public consensus more in the direction of legal same sex marriages, when he alluded to his own young daughters' feelings, and some young Republicans agreeing with him on the issue, even though they remain at odds in most other areas.
"Some of this is also generational," the president told ABC News' Robin Roberts. "You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation, that they believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it."
The views expressed in the new CBS News/New York Times poll have been relatively consistent for the past few years. Prior to that, however, support for same-sex marriage was lower. In 2004, just 28 percent said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and 38 percent thought their relationships should have no legal recognition.
There are large partisan differences on this issue, as well, and they are clear from the poll data.
About half of Republicans said they do not support any legal recognition of same-sex relationships, while 37 percent back civil unions. Few Republicans who participated in the survey - just nine percent - said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, whereas 58 percent of Democrats say same-sex couples should be permitted to marry.
Most independents (62 percent) support some kind of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, including 39 percent who said such couples should be allowed to marry.
Most Americans seem to think states, rather than the federal government, should make the decision as to whether same-sex marriage is legal or not. Only a third of those who responded to the survey said the federal government should decide. Most Republicans and independents think this issue should be decided by state governments, while Democrats are equally divided.
This poll was conducted by telephone on May 11-13, 2012 among 615 adults nationwide, including 562 registered voters, who were first interviewed for a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted April 13-17, 2012.
Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus four percentage points. The margin of error for the sample of registered voters is four percentage points. The error for subgroups is higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.