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Will a majority of ND back gay marriage by 2016?

FARGO -- A majority of North Dakotans will be in favor of same-sex marriage by 2016, if we're to believe Nate Silver.

Silver, a statistician who blogs for The New York Times, predicts in a recent polling analysis that 51 percent of the state will favor same-sex marriage in just three years. By 2020, Silver predicts, that number goes up to 58 percent.

While Silver has a track record of being right -- he correctly guessed the presidential election outcome in 49 states in 2008 and in all 50 states in 2012 -- he did infamously get North Dakota's Senate race wrong last year when he picked then-Rep. Rick Berg to beat Heidi Heitkamp, who won by a narrow 3,000 votes.

It's not just in North Dakota that Silver predicts the winds of change. Based on polling data dating back to 1996, Silver says the nation has been on a gradual, linear trend toward majority support for same-sex marriage since about 2004.

By 2016, Silver predicts that 31 states plus the District of Columbia will have majority support for gay marriage, including North Dakota and Minnesota.

By 2020, only six states won't have that majority support, he says -- South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Support for same-sex marriage nationwide has risen about 2 percentage points per year since 2004, Silver says.

A different study released by the Williams Institute at UCLA on Friday says that since 2004, every state has increased its support for same-sex marriage by an average of 13.6 points.

As of 2012, 25 states plus the District of Columbia are either at or within 5 percentage points of majority support, the UCLA study says, though it puts neither Minnesota nor North Dakota on that list.

The UCLA study, which sought to find what percentage of people in each state thought about same-sex marriage in 2012, combined data from 11 nationwide polls from 2012 and 2011.

Silver's analysis has 31 states and the District of Columbia at or within 5 percentage points of majority support for same-sex marriage in 2012.

To make his state-by-state predictions, Silver took a dozen points of demographic data from more than 5,000 exit polls in states that voted on a same-sex marriage ballot initiative in 2008 -- California, Florida and Arizona -- and extrapolated that data to predict how voters in the other 47 states would have cast ballots in 2008.

Silver then used historical data from polls since 1996 to predict those numbers through 2020.

Which way goes ND?

Barry Nelson, chairman of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, believes Silver's analysis "might be accurate.

"I think the momentum is on the side of change," Nelson said.

Others think Silver again is misreading North Dakota.

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said the state still believes in "traditional" marriage between a man and a woman.

"It's been the base of our society, and I think the people of North Dakota really reflect that," he said. "Family is very important in our state."

As an example, one need to look no further than the actions of this year's state Legislature, he said.

In 2009, the state Senate passed by eight votes a bill preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, though the bill was defeated in the House.

This year, a similar bill failed in the Senate by 5 votes -- a 13-vote swing in four years, Freier noted.

"They do represent the state of North Dakota," Freier said. "So compared to what he's (Silver) saying here in his poll, that he thinks is the direction this is going, those elected officials just went the other way and very dramatically."

Nelson said he believes the Legislature this session is particularly unrepresentative of the state.

"I don't see us as being this spot in the middle of the country that just will not change while all around us does change," he said.

Even in North Dakota, "people are realizing, this is my neighbor. This is the person who sits next to me in church," Nelson said. "It strips that whole fearful mystery from it. These are real people."

Majority support in Minn.?

Minnesota is already at a majority support for same-sex marriage, Silver says.

Voters across the state last fall defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have declared marriage as between one man and one woman, with 51.2 percent voting against.

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage is set to be debated on the floor of both the state Senate and House this month.

By 2016, Silver sees the support in Minnesota growing to 58 percent. It will reach 64 percent by 2020, he predicts.

However, the UCLA study says that only 43 percent of the state supported same-sex marriage in 2012.

Minnesota for Marriage, a statewide organization that advocates against same-sex marriage, said in a release that the UCLA study is "another concrete example that Minnesotans don't support gay marriage"

"In fact, it (the ULCA study) runs contrary to the erroneous assertion that public opinion on gay marriage is radically changing," said Autumn Leva, director of communications for Minnesota for Marriage.

"Despite Mr. Silver's analysis, the fact is 41 states continue to affirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman," Leva added.

Dustin White, president of the Pride Collective and Community Center, a regional same-sex marriage advocacy group based in Moorhead, said Minnesota voters striking down the constitutional amendment is proof that Silver is right.

"I think that is a big sign that people are kind of opening up to the idea of same-sex marriage," White said. "I do definitely see that (support) is growing."