Four years ago, LGBT advocates were devastated by the voter approval of Proposition 8 in California, which reversed a state court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. In that fight, the political consultant Frank Schubert, who led the anti-gay forces there and in the four states that voted on marriage this week, created a deadly ad campaign that played on lingering fears that gay equality threatens kids. In his advertisement, a schoolgirl returns home and cheerfully announces what she learned in school—that a prince can marry a prince, and she can marry a princess! In 2009, Schubert used the identical playbook to win a ballot measure in Maine invalidating the legislature’s decision to let gays wed.
Just three years later, the people of Maine did an about face, and along with Maryland voted Tuesday to let gay couples marry. (Update: voters also approved marriage equality in Washington state and rejected a constitutional amendment banning it in Minnesota.) Until this election, every state that had held a popular vote on the question—32 in a row—had rejected same-sex marriage. Maine and Maryland not only ended the losing streak but may have turned the war, depriving defenders of straight-only marriage of their latest talking point: that the people don’t want gays to marry. (And let’s not forget that Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first openly gay senator!)
How same-sex marriage ballot initiatives turned around is all about the long game. The gay rights movement succeeded using one of the most sophisticated issue campaign operations ever deployed—and by making it stick with old-fashioned commitment, hard work, and face-to-face conversations.
After the losses in Maine in 2009 and California a year earlier, LGBT advocates knew they needed to craft an effective response to Schubert’s false message that gay equality harms kids. Enter Freedom To Marry. The umbrella group was founded in 2003 by the civil rights lawyer Evan Wolfson, who has consistently preached about winning hearts and minds in between elections rather than in the frenzied lead-up to them. While gay groups had spent millions of dollars on public opinion research before and after the Prop 8 loss in California, no one had ever stopped to pull it all together.
Within weeks of the Maine loss, Freedom To Marry helped assemble a coalition of state-based gay groups, polling experts and academic researchers to centralize and share information so that each campaign didn’t have to start from scratch for each new battle.
What came out of this tightly coordinated effort was the key to dismantling the anti-gay myths of the last 40 years. For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.
The gay rights coalition’s response was the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign. Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits. On the surface, it looks like any garden-variety public education campaign, a little vague, a little sappy. But this message was the result of several years and millions of dollars of research. It signaled a sea change in the way gay advocates pled their case. This was a way to invite straight people to empathize with gay people, to reassure the majority that gay people wanted the same things that they did, and to shift focus from minority rights to points of commonality. The year Why Marriage Matters rolled out, 2011, was also the year that a slew of polls first showed majority national support for same-sex marriage.
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.
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.)