No on Prop 8 official grilled over campaign
by Dan Aiello
Underestimating their opponent's resources, an LGBT community lulled into complacency by an inaccurate Field Poll, a "pathetic" Web site that at times was not fully functioning, an under-funded initial media buy, and a campaign lacking statewide cohesion are just some of the reasons for Proposition 8's passage, a senior official with the No on 8 campaign told Sacramento LGBT Democrats Monday, November 10.
Members of the Stonewall Democrats were skeptical and frustrated with the remarks made by Steve Smith, a principal with Dewey Square who managed the No on 8 campaign.
"To win you have to define the issue, and we didn't do that," said Smith, who claimed that the campaign was "under-resourced" relative to Prop 8's proponents.
The No on 8 campaign raised an estimated $37 million, according to preliminary state records, while Yes on 8 raised approximately $35 million.
But the No on 8 campaign also failed to predict the proponent's argument, Smith said, and he believes that was in large part because the Yes on 8 campaign wasn't sure itself.
"If you watch their first ad, they had three different messages," Smith said. Those messages were, definition of marriage, a church's tax-exempt status, and kids, explained Smith.
In the end, the issue of kids and schools became the focal point of Yes on 8, and that left opponents scrambling and on the defensive.
"Why did we lose? It really boils down to three or four things. From the beginning we said we had to get on TV first and we had to define the issue. We got up on TV four or five days before them, but we got up on TV, frankly, under-resourced than, in fact, where we needed to be."
Smith said that although the Yes on 8 campaign got up on TV almost a week later, "They did so at about twice the buy that we did. And their ad was a screamer – 'whether you like it or not!' I mean, if I never hear that phrase again ... it was a real grabber. It actually didn't say almost anything at all. What it did do was communicate a message 'all those goddamned politicians and all those judges.' That's what it did. And people are so mad at politicians."
Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter before the meeting, Smith admitted that he was caught by surprise both by the resources of the Yes on 8 campaign as well as by its strategy.
"When we planned the campaign, we thought they'd have $15 million. When it became clear that they didn't, that they had a lot more than that, we retooled," he said.
Smith claimed that the No on 8 campaign first realized it had underestimated its opponent's resources with the Yes campaign's first ad buy, "which was 50 percent more than ours."
As the campaign intensified, Smith himself was relieved of some of his authority in October, when Patrick Guerriero was brought in from Massachusetts as campaign director for No on 8. Smith said that he was fine with the change, and that more people were needed to help run the campaign.
Smith defended the campaign's first ad, which featured Sam and Julia Thoron, the parents of a lesbian daughter.
"The Thoron ad was a good ad, it worked, it grabbed people's emotions quite well. It especially worked among women," he said. "For the four or five days it was up by itself we moved poll numbers our direction. The problem was, the minute they put that grabber up, within three days it started evening out and then they put up the next ad with the kids."
"The second problem was, simply, money," said Smith. "And I'm not saying we didn't have a lot, we did, we had plenty that we should have been able to win. We ended up spending very nearly $40 million dollars, more than anybody had ever spent on this kind of race. What stunned us was we planned a campaign thinking we had to raise and spend $20 million, maybe 25, and they'd have $15 million."
Smith claims that after the first TV buy where the Yes campaign bought nearly twice the No campaign, he "thought something was up."
"Then about a week later the reports got published and we found out was happening," he said. Smith claims the Mormon Church had asked its members to donate through the Internet in amounts just under the reporting requirement of $1,000, which effectively hid the donations from the No on 8 campaign.
"So there was just a ton of Internet contributions and checks that we had no idea were there. So that was mistake number two."
Smith said a turning point came in early October, after the campaign held an emergency conference call with LGBT media outlets, announcing the No campaign was behind in polling and fundraising.
"We did it late," said Smith, who said such a call was counterintuitive. "We said 'here's our polling data and we're behind.'"
Smith said the resulting coverage immediately brought in both financial and personnel resources.
"The community woke up. We should've done that earlier. It felt bizarre to do it, but it worked."
Smith acknowledged to a Stonewall member who criticized the campaign's Web site as "pathetic" and "a Web site someone would've been proud of in 1996," that the campaign initially failed to effectively utilize the Internet. According to Smith, it wasn't until six to eight weeks before the election that the Web site was fixed by volunteers supplied by Google, and the results were immediate. In the months prior to the Web site fix, the No on 8 campaign raised "only about $1 million in Internet contributions." In the last six weeks, "we raised approximately $22 million," said Smith.
Smith told the B.A.R. that an early Field Poll showing Prop 8 losing by 10-15 points "was pure fiction. We were never that far ahead."
Smith explained that polling showed Californians favored same-sex marriage by about two to four points before the May 15 Supreme Court ruling.
"After the court ruling we actually fell behind by a few points," he said. "We fought our way back up on 'marriage day' to where we were just slightly behind."
Then for those four days when the Thoron ad was up on television alone the campaign edged four to five points ahead. That was the last time Smith believed the campaign enjoyed a lead. A week later, "when they hit us [with the Newsom ad], we fell behind by 10 points."
The third mistake, though Smith wasn't sure if it was a mistake or not, was "a judgment call" on the campaign's second to the last ad. Smith explained that polling had told them they needed to avoid using the word "discrimination," because minority communities, especially African Americans, were offended by it. The phrase "treat people differently" consistently polled nine to 10 points higher than using the word "discrimination," he said.
The discrimination ad, featuring the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson, compared Prop 8's discriminatory language to the discrimination experienced by Japanese Americans, Armenians in the Central Valley, and interracial couples prevented from marrying each other under California's anti-miscegenation statute that was repealed by the state Supreme Court in 1948 (Perez v. Sharp). That ad also showed images of same-sex couples. The lack of gay and lesbian couples in the campaign's ads was a chief complaint by Stonewall members, and was a complaint made often by community members in San Francisco and elsewhere in the weeks leading up to the election.
Smith defended the ads run by the campaign, which he said were developed by three different firms, one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, and one in Sacramento. "The Thoron ad moved numbers. The [Jack] O'Connell ad moved numbers. The [Dianne] Feinstein ad moved numbers."
Smith said that the campaign's last tracking on the Sunday before the election had the race at 47-47.
Smith believed that the primary goal of the campaign, to "define the issue," was never reached, and if the electorate isn't convinced of change, they will vote down a proposition.
"We were never the 'No' campaign," contended Smith. "In voter's heads, going into the voting booth, we were the side asking for change." Smith also believes that in poor economic times voters become more conservative. Had the economy not tanked before the election, "It might have been harder for [Barack] Obama to win, but it would have been easier for us."
Smith's strategy focused on only 20 percent of Californians, believing that 40 percent were always "with us" and 40 percent were always against us. "Ultimately, the other side was successful in scaring that 20 percent into believing this would turn their children into homosexuals. They preached fear and played to intolerance and won."
Smith said this was a particularly "hard loss because the other side won by bullshitting."
Another Stonewall member questioned the campaign's strategy of focusing on the coastal areas and not campaigning statewide in all 54 California counties, comparing it to Obama's 50-state strategy.
"If I had it to do over again I'd have begun advertising in the Fresno market earlier, but Fresno's only 10 percent of state voters," Smith said. "We didn't lose because we lost a few points in Fresno. We lost because we missed seven or eight points in L.A."
Smith remained optimistic, despite the loss, and pointed out that the gains made in the eight years since Proposition 22 passed is "the largest movement on a social issue" he's seen in his entire career.
"The trend is so far in our favor," he said. "Whether the court overturns it in three months or the voters overturn it in two years, I guarantee you we will look back on this" as only a temporary setback.
Smith asked everyone to get the message out to the community not to act out. "It's hard not to act out, but I'm telling you, don't act out. The spray paint on the Mormon Church, that hurts us. Any violence, that hurts us."
Smith, who is straight, encouraged the LGBT community not to despair.
"Things are trending our way. Even [the Yes on 8 folks] think it's going that way, and they're scared."
Smith said that the No on 8 resources, including a list of thousands of donors, "including a lot of straight money," an incredible network and the religious and other allies gained over the course of the campaign will be instrumental in any future battles.