By Len Lazarick

Demonstrators for "marriage equality" -- same sex marriage -- outside the State House in 2011

A new poll finds Marylanders closely divided on two hot issues that will likely appear on the November ballot – same-sex marriage and tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.

Voters are nearly split down the middle on the two proposals.

The poll of 808 registered voters taken last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found 49% favored same-sex marriage and 47% opposed it.

“Opposition to same-sex marriage among African-American voters is what keeps the issue close in the state,” pollster Patrick Gonzales said in his analysis. “If black support was equivalent to that of Democrats, as it is on many issues, same-sex marriage would be in a solid majority in Maryland.”

Two-thirds of Democrats (68%) support gay marriage, but 60% of African-Americans are opposed, as are 62% of Republicans.

About 38% of voters “strongly” oppose same-sex marriage, while 34% “strongly” favor the law, which will be sponsored this year by Gov. Martin O’Malley. If it passes, it will likely be petitioned to referendum.

Immigrant tuition, marijuana

CORRECTION: On immigrant tuition, 48% agree (21% “strongly” agree) that “children of immigrants who are NOT in the state legally should be given the opportunity to receive Maryland in-state college tuition rates if they have graduated from a Maryland high school and their parents can prove they have filed Maryland state tax returns for the past three years.” But 49% disagree, 37% strongly.

A majority of Democrats and African-Americans support the tuition measure – the so-called DREAM act — which is scheduled to go on the November ballot, while Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed (71%). White voters (53%) and independents (52%) oppose the measure by slight margins.

Looking at another issue likely to come before the General Assembly this year, three out of five Maryland voters (63%) favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. Even a slight majority of Republicans favor the measure.

O’Malley, Cardin, Obama approval

O’Malley’s job approval rating remains steady at 53%, about the same as found by a September Gonzales poll (52%), but down from 58% a year ago.

“O’Malley’s standing in the state is based on his strong showing with women and African-American voters,” as well as Democrats, Gonzales said. A large majority of Republicans (85%) disapprove of the job he is doing. Men and whites are evenly split.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is up for reelection this year, and 51% approve of the job he is doing. He has strong approval among Democrats (68%), “suggesting he would be difficult to defeat in a primary,” Gonzales said.

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating among Marylanders has bounced back since the fall. Statewide, 55% approve of the job he is doing, while 41% disapprove. In September, it was 47-49%.

Gonzales notes that “Obama’s rebound is attributable to an eight-point jump among Democrats since September (73% to 81%) and an 18-point leap among independents.” Nine out of 10 Maryland Republicans disapprove of the job he is doing.

“The economy remains the top issue facing Free State voters,” Gonzales said, but for the first time in two years, less than half the voters polled listed it as the top issue they were concerned about. Thirteen percent say education is the most important issue confronting the state, and 11% list taxes as their top concern.

The poll’s margin of error is 3.5%.