How Gay Marriage Finally Won at the Polls

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 7 2012 2:00 AM

How Gay Marriage Finally Won at the Polls

The inside strategy behind victory in Maryland and Maine.

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Thalia Zepatos* of Freedom To Marry, who oversees the coalition’s messaging research, describes another revelation from the data. Schubert’s misleading “princess” ads implied that schools could usurp the role of parents in teaching pro-gay values, but that was wrong. As Zepatos and her team pored over the research, they watched conversations in which voters spoke among themselves and kept circling back to the same insight: Parents are the parents, and they teach their kids values at home. The challenge, Zepatos and her colleagues determined, was to reassure voters about this conclusion. Parents knew they had the control, but the Schubert ads—which in the past have killed a pro-gay lead in the polls at the last minute—made them anxious about losing it.

The first step to combatting that fear were ads that showed (among other story lines) a mom who was also a teacher speaking at home with her husband. “What we do in a school is no substitute for what happens at home,” she says. Her husband chimes in: “No law is going to change the core values we teach our kids here at home.”  The takeaway: No one would force parents into uncomfortable conversations when their own child returned home from school.

But advertising is a one-way conversation. Zepatos began to find that once voters became engaged (either by pro- or anti-forces), new concerns arose. The next step was to turn the messaging into a conversation. Working with Analyst Institute, a liberal group of social scientists who conduct randomized testing of voter contact efforts, the same-sex marriage campaigns field tested different approaches to these conversations with voters. The research, which even included a control group, showed which approaches worked with which groups. Older people might respond better to older messengers; pet owners might respond better to in-person conversations than to mailings. Armed with this kind of granular information, campaigners could work most effectively to shore up support among persuadable voters.

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In the end, the Maine campaign spoke to 250,000 people, nearly a fifth of the state’s population—and that was likely the fifth that mattered most. This sort of effort is ongoing in more states beyond this week’s election, such as Oregon, which may be next up for an initiative.

Skeptics contend these tactics are a waste. Some think the gay rights issue is now a self-propelling snowball, and that demographics (the dying off of old homophobes) accounts more for progress than all the targeted activism.

But we know these conversations work—and not only because of the election results Tuesday. Research shows that knowing a gay person makes you 65 percent more likely to support same-sex marriage—and having a conversation with that gay person about marriage raises the figure to 80 percent. Third Way recently released a report showing that 75 percent of positive change in support for same-sex marriage is due to people of every age group changing their minds. It’s about having the right message and imparting it with patience and labor. “People used to say winning the freedom to marry was impossible,” Wolfson says. “Now they say it’s inevitable. What both have in common is that neither requires work.” Neither is true, either. Marriage equality will prevail—because of all the effort its supporters have poured into making that happen.

Correction, Nov. 7, 2012: This article originally misspelled Thalia Zepatos' last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.

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