By Matt Foreman, program director at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund:
California’s Proposition 8 – Ours to Lose? Nope. It was always an Uphill Climb.
A lot of people have been saying that Prop 8 was our side’s to lose and that missteps by the No on 8 Campaign snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Those analyses ignore hard core obstacles and fundamentals underlying the contest, including how hard it is to hold and move opinions on marriage in the narrow confines of a campaign.
I need to start by saying that I had nothing to do with the No on 8 Campaign. Because the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, where I work, has been so deeply involved in public education work in support of marriage equality, the law literally precluded any contact or coordination with the electoral campaign. So, as a purely armchair quarterback it’s pretty easy for me to catalogue things I – in my infinite wisdom – would have done differently. But I also know that even if everything– every single thing - had gone our way, it still would have been incredibly hard to win by anything more than a tiny margin. Here’s why.
Putting Minority Rights Up to a Popular Vote: the Difficulty of Winning
First off, it’s nearly impossible for minorities to win or defend their rights at the ballot box. Californians have demonstrated that time and again, voting to outlaw affirmative action, to deny grade school education and non-emergency medical care to undocumented children, and to specifically permit race discrimination in housing. This profound disadvantage was exacerbated by the fact that marriage is in a class by itself as an issue. Everyone has an intimate, personal relationship with marriage and has an opinion – usually visceral – about it. True, over time people are moving toward marriage – we’ve quite amazingly gained about one point per year since 2000. But within the narrow time constraints of a campaign – under 90 days – it is pure fancy to think there’s a “movable middle” on marriage. At best there was movable sliver. More on that in a bit.
Our Opponents’ Base – Huge, Solid, Energized
Second, the other side had a huge, largely unmovable, energized base. We didn’t. No surprise but they had older people all sewn up. While we won among all voters under 65, more than two-thirds (67%) of voters 65 or older voted for Prop 8. That alone – yes, alone – was enough to override our majority support among all younger age groups. Anyone who thinks a 90-day campaign – even a flawless one – is going to overcome the imprint of homophobia on those born before World War II needs to think again.
In addition to older people, the other side also had a stranglehold on regular churchgoers. More than two-thirds (70%) of people who worship at least once a week voted for Prop 8 and they make up nearly half (45%) of the electorate. Yes, our side got an equally large proportion of people who hardly ever attend church (70%), but they comprise only 29% of the vote. Anyone who thinks it is easy to overcome homophobia that’s reinforced on a weekly basis from a person’s own house of worship doesn’t appreciate the role of religion in so many people’s lives or its pervasive use as a rationale for voting for Prop 8: an astonishing 94% of “Yes” voters said “religion” or the “Bible” was most influential in deciding how to vote.
What does combining older voters, frequent churchgoers and Republicans (81% of who voted for Prop 8) yield? A rock solid, close to 50% of the vote, that’s what. How solid? Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who voted for Prop 8 said nothing – that’s right, nothing – would have changed their mind. And almost all of the rest of them couldn’t really name anything real that would have changed their minds. For example, the most common answer offered by these folks was “calling same sex marriage by another name” – an option not on the ballot.
Does this mean we can’t ever move older voters, Republicans and frequent churchgoers? Of course not. My parents – both 76, conservative Republicans and devout Catholics – are prime examples. While they could not be more pro-marriage now, I know in my heart that it’s only because my partner (now spouse) and I have been a part of their lives for years – we could never have moved them in the 90 days the Prop 8 campaign essentially had.
Support on Our Side – Smaller and Squishy
Our side? Not so big and not so solid. At best, we LGBT people make up 6% of the vote and unlike the fervor from our opponents’ much larger base we weren’t united on marriage equality. (Two polls said 5% of the LGBT community – or 1% of the total vote – actually voted “Yes.”) I’m still hearing the refrain “I don’t know why we’re fighting for marriage – I don’t believe in it” or “It’s not my issue.” I think this is because for years we’ve mainly presented marriage as a package of rights – like a better dental plan – than what it’s really about, recognition of equal humanity. Whatever the reasons – they were united and energized; we weren’t.
But more important, unlike our opponents, our base beyond LGBT people is squishy on its leading edge. Going into the Prop 8 contest, only a slim majority of Californians (54%) even believed that our relationships are moral. (This figure also was our high point in the superficial public pre-election polls to which so much significance was attached.) This slim majority is all our side had to work with. After all, no one who thinks we’re immoral is going to vote to protect our access to the ultimate societal institution used to judge and control sex, procreation and “family values.” At the same time, it’s hardly a given that people who do not see us as immoral are automatically for marriage equality.
The Ick Factor
In fact, many of those people are still deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality. This “ick” is and always has been our Achilles heel, something our opponents skillfully exploit time and again. Lots of folks I respect have been saying if only the No on 8 Campaign had put up or hit back with forceful, to-the-heart ads featuring gay and lesbian families – instead of those soft ones with parents or surrogates like Sen. Diane Feinstein – we would have won. I desperately want to agree, but can’t.
The sad reality is that our movables get all wobbly – they blanch, they stammer, they get visibly uncomfortable – when faced with the reality of our couples, our families, our children. I’ve personally seen it dozens of times in focus groups, in one-on-one interviews, and in my own life and my friends’ lives. Ads, for example, that make you and me cheer don’t work with them at all, they backfire.
What’s this about? The short answer is that the ick factor is alive and festering even among people who want to suppress it. These are people who truly want to be fair and who don’t want to hurt other people. At the same time, they remain deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality and marriage goes right to the heart of their discomfort, given that sex is central to marriage.
Ads that Move Us Don’t Move those We Need to Move
In 2004, when I was at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we – like so many people now – were sick of our side resorting to intellectualized arguments like “Don’t write discrimination into the constitution” when the other side was going for arguments that hit the heart and emotions(?). We were frustrated that our side’s campaigns almost never put up ads showing our families speaking in emotion-based arguments in support of marriage.
With no small amount of self-righteousness, we taped a dozen ads featuring gay and lesbian couples speaking from the heart, many with heart-wrenching stories. LGBT loved them. But when we showed them to voters who were opposed to anti-gay discrimination but weren’t there on marriage (that is, the movables) all we were able to get from a few people was a hint of empathy, but absolutely no movement on marriage. It was stunning - incredibly hard to witness. Our elaborately-planned campaign had to be scrapped – we couldn’t justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that made us feel good but didn’t move anyone else.
Closer to home, nearly three years ago the Haas, Jr. Fund, Gill Foundation, the David Bohnett Foundation, Ambassador Jim Hormel and others invested nearly $500,000 to understand what would move Californians to support marriage equality and how to address the deeply conflicting views the mushy middle holds about LGBT equality. Once again, ads featuring gay people – individuals or couples or families – just did not work. What did work were messages that pushed people to think about the issue in a new way, namely, asking them how would they feel if they were in our shoes. But again, gay and lesbian people didn’t work as the messengers.
That’s where the “Garden Wedding” ad came from – the message being delivered silently by a bride facing numerous obstacles trying to get down the aisle that ended with the tagline “What if you couldn’t marry the person you love?”. Did I like the ad? Absolutely not..
Did it work? Absolutely. Let California Ring conducted rigorous testing in the Santa Barbara media market last year. A baseline poll found that only 36% of people there supported marriage equality, 8-10 points below the state average. That was followed by a substantial buy for the Garden Wedding ad, coupled with field organizing. A follow-up poll showed that support for marriage equality grew significantly, including a 16% jump among younger voters (as opposed to zero growth in markets where the campaign did not run). More tellingly, on Election Day, Santa Barbara defeated Prop 8 by 10 points (compared to it passing Prop 22 by 14 points in 2000). Santa Barbara was the only county in Southern California to vote No on 8 and the only thing that was different was the Garden Wedding campaign.
Why did it work? Instead of asking viewers to accept a gay couple – which was simply too much too much for many people – the ad provided them a way to be empathetic that was more comfortable to them. This made the issue about who they are – fair minded, not bigoted – rather than about whether they approve of gay relationships. Sadly, our side was unable to raise the millions required to take the ad statewide in the years and months before Prop 8 qualified for the ballot. Part of this failing was the simple reality that it’s very hard to raise money in the absence of a campaign and crisis; the other main reason was that gay donors didn’t understand the power and appeal of the ad and didn’t step up to fund it.
Where Gay and Lesbian People Don’t Make Good Messengers and Where They Do
Here’s another painful reality all this research again showed: using gay and lesbian people as messengers not only failed to move people in our direction, it actually hurt us – driving movables against marriage equality. Over and over the same result: showing them ads with gay and lesbian individuals or couples pushed people the wrong way. And ads that included children with their gay or lesbian parents did even worse. That’s why the “Yes on 8” campaign so prominently featured children in its ads.
Think about friends who tell you their relatives are OK with them being gay or lesbian so long as they don’t talk about it. Why do so many of us find it so incredibly hard to bring up gay issues with co-workers or when we visit our families over the holidays? Or when we do, what about the painful silence or uncomfortable glances that so often follow? Think your Aunt Jane – who’s only recently started to be nice to your partner – is going to see a television ad and suddenly think “Darn, I’ve been wrong all along about this gay marriage thing!”? Think again.
I am not saying we shouldn’t be putting our lives, stories and faces front and center over and over again or that we can’t move people solidly to our side. Most of us have seen how taking our lives up close and personal to people around us does, in fact, create change. Moreover, having these direct, real conversations is the only way we’re ever going to squelch the ick and inoculate voters from attacks that exploit it.
What I am saying is that we can’t leave this hard work until the last minute – which is what a campaign really is. We can’t expect some brilliantly-crafted ads – coming from our collective heart – to be the silver bullets that kill anti-marriage ballot initiatives in the heat of a campaign, when there is no time and the other side is assaulting our movables with carefully-crafted messages designed to exploit every anti-gay fear and myth. Instead, we need to move people beyond short-term political campaigns and before they get underway.
Yes, I do think we could have won – by a fraction of a point – if everything had gone our way. But everything didn’t go our way, including mistakes our side undoubtedly made and things beyond our control like the Mormon President/Prophet’s ordering his faithful to fuel the “Yes” campaign. That gave our opponents a two-to-one money advantage 60 days out, something few campaigns of any sort, anywhere, are able to overcome.
As numbing, insulting and painful as our loss was, let’s take real pride in the fact that we moved the needle nine points on marriage – yes, marriage – in less than eight years. Of course we must face up to and learn from our missteps. But rather than getting caught up in endless recriminations of our recent loss, let’s focus on the long term work ahead—how to build our social movement to win complete equality in California and across the nation..
From a big picture view that means ramping up education and organizing within churches, among younger voters, and in people of color and rural communities. But more important it is what each of us can and must do everyday: having those hard, from the heart talks with our friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers. Time is once again on our side, let’s make the most of it.
Matt Foreman is a program director at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. He is the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Empire State Pride Agenda.
The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund is a private family foundation established by Evelyn D. Haas and Walter A. Haas, Jr. that has awarded more than $330 million in grants since its founding in 1953. The Fund is located in San Francisco, California. The Fund strives to contribute in meaningful and effective ways at the local, state and national levels to create a just and caring society where all people are able to live, work and raise their families with dignity. To learn more about the Haas, Jr. Fund, visit their website at www.haasjr.org.