Lots of factors
in marriage wins
analysis by Lisa Keen
Was the sweep of marriage equality in four state ballot measure last week the payoff for years of grassroots work, talking to neighbors, and preparing against scare tactics, or was it the luck of having a weakened opponent on more liberal ground with a strengthened Democratic turnout?
There are as many answers to this question as there are ways of asking it: Why, after eight years and 32 straight losses (save for a victory in Arizona that was reversed two years later), did marriage equality supporters this month win four of four battles at the ballot box?
In various mainstream media recaps, the response is that the general population is growing more accepting of same-sex marriage. A New York Times article Sunday said, "A rapid shift in public opinion is bolstering [the same-sex marriage equality] cause as more people grow used to the idea of same-sex marriage and become acquainted with openly gay people and couples."
The Minnesota Post gave credit to the fact that 79 percent of young voters in Minnesota voted against the proposed ban of same-sex marriage, a much higher percentage than voters overall in the state (54 percent). It also noted that any ballot that did not include a "Yes" or "No" vote on Amendment 1 counted as a "No" vote.
Articles in the Kennebec Journal in Maine credited a "progressive" electorate that cares about fairness and pro-marriage equality supporters "who learned from their defeat" in a 2009 ballot fight "and made a concerted effort to win votes outside the state's progressive urban and suburban districts."
The Baltimore Sun said the victory to pass Question 6 in Maryland could be "traced in part" to the involvement of the faith community, in particular the fact that two African American Southern Baptist ministers chose to "lend their names, faces, and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said the passage of Referendum 74 to allow same-sex marriage in Washington State was "bolstered by getting two-thirds of the vote in populous King County."
The National Organization for Marriage, which spearheaded the drives to defeat the three pro-marriage equality measures and to pass the proposed ban in Minnesota, offered a litany of reasons for their unprecedented losses. One NOM official, Thomas Peter, told PBS News Hour that many opponents of same-sex marriage had grown "complacent" from all their previous victories. But their key explanations, according to NOM leader Brian Brown, were that the four states were "very liberal" Democratic states, and the other side had much more money.
All of these explanations have some veracity – some more than others. For instance, Patrick Egan, a public opinion specialist and professor at New York University, said there's no doubt "we were fighting on very friendly territory this year in three states" – Maine, Maryland, and Washington. And there's no doubt that Democrats generally outperformed Republicans in the state of Minnesota this year. (It certainly contrasts with North Carolina, which approved a marriage ban in May, and has typically been a Republican-leaning state.)
But these explanations still represent only the surface of a very deep, multi-faceted foundation to the historic victories November 6.
Longtime gay Democratic activist David Mixner credited youth, too, but sees it as a two-way street: more young LGBT people willing to come out to their friends and family plus an "influx of straight energy into the LGBT movement" from a younger generation who has more knowledge and less fear about sexual orientation differences.
"By coming out, more people know LGBT people individually and personally, and the more willing they are to support our freedom and equality," said Mixner. "And young people challenged their parents and said it's not fair. This influx of straight energy into the LGBT movement is something we haven't seen the likes of since the civil rights movement of 1960s."
Another longtime activist, Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, said she would "definitely" give President Barack Obama some credit. Obama, in May, arranged for a nationally televised interview specifically to express his personal evolution to a place where he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.
"He came out for freedom and, as he did, he explained how he talked about it with his own children. It changed how African Americans voted in some of these states," Jean said.
Unlike President Clinton, noted Jean, who "acknowledged us" but then "invited the passage" of the Defense of Marriage Act, "one of the single worst pieces of legislation ever enacted," Obama has been "a proponent of full and complete equality for our people ... and he got re-elected."
"I think that fact alone means that the right-wingers can no longer bank on being able to use our lives, dignity, and rights as a wedge issue," she added.
Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry organization, agreed that Obama's remarks in support of same-sex marriage were critical.
Freedom to Marry said at the beginning of the year that paving the way for the president to support marriage equality was "our top priority," along with having marriage equality become part of the Democratic Party platform. Both happened.
The top priority for the last half of the year, Wolfson said, was "winning a ballot measure – and we succeeded in four of four."
Wolfson, who has been working on the marriage equality issue since its first serious eruption in Hawaii over a historic lawsuit there in 1993, said the four "profound triumphs" this year came down to infrastructure, conversations, and time.
"We had better, smarter, and more focused infrastructure and resources this year that had the ability to close the deal," said Wolfson. "We worked hard to lay the kind of groundwork that is necessary for campaigns to win." That included early money that enabled campaigns to make earlier media buys that were both cheaper and provided for a long, sustained interaction with voters. The money also totaled much more than NOM and marriage equality opponents could muster. Brown estimated his group spent $5.5 million; Wolfson estimated the four pro-marriage equality campaigns spent $32 million. The 2008 campaign against California's Proposition 8 raised $40 million, noted Wolfson, but more than half of that money came in the last few weeks of the campaign.
Having that funding in place early, said Wolfson, "enabled us to command the narrative and constantly make the case with voters without being diverted" to fundraising activities. It also enabled the campaigns to put messages in place to counter the scare tactics they knew would be coming from the other side – such as Prop 8's message that allowing same-sex marriage would require public schools to teach young children that boys can marry boys.
In addition to television messages to counter those tactics, said Wolfson, the four campaigns benefited from the "cumulative effect of persuasion and conversations" with the public.
"I've been saying this for years: There is no marriage without engagement," said Wolfson. "It's the number one most important factor – to help people think things through and create the climate" to win.
And part of that climate change has, he said, come over the course of time with the public being able to "see with their own eyes" same-sex couples getting married in six states and the District of Columbia, as well as in 14 countries.
"It refutes the scare tactics, it resolves the discomfort in favor of fairness. Families are helped and no one is hurt," said Wolfson. "All that is up from zero a decade ago, and it has allowed people to rise to a higher level of understanding and support."