The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and its allies suffered a terrible loss in November 2008 when voters approved Prop 8 and banned same-sex marriage in California.
The purpose of this report is to help supporters of same-sex marriage learn from the Prop 8 campaign. This knowledge can hasten the day that we are able to return to the ballot to win same-sex marriage in California or in any state where we have previously lost on the issue.
There is much to learn. Many commonly held beliefs about Prop 8 are factually incorrect. The data show that the pro–same-sex marriage side, the No on 8 campaign, made both smart choices and costly mistakes. This report aims to help our entire community recognize and learn from both. Understanding what happened will help all of us face and embrace the hard work ahead.
In plain text, accessible to community leaders, campaign experts, and grassroots activists alike, this report examines and shares a large body of data, including but not limited to the polling information recently released by the No on 8 campaign. The report identifies and examines the strategy and tactics prioritized by the No on 8 and Yes on 8 campaigns. It looks most closely at television advertising because both campaigns spent by far the largest share of their money on this one tactic.
The report also assembles key facts about other aspects of the campaign and a campaign chronology. It charts movement in public opinion and summarizes a substantial body of polling data previously unavailable for public examination. The report reveals that some strategic choices were much more effective than others. The result: it identifies lessons learned that can help the LGBT community and our allies do better and avoid repeating mistakes.
In addition to data, this report includes my independent analysis of the data. I offer my views because data does not speak for itself. We have to make sense of it. All of us can contribute to that understanding; I come prepared to help. My preparation includes 30 years as a campaign manager and trainer of candidates, managers, and community organizers, with 17 of those years in the trenches doing the practical, necessary work to fight anti-LGBT ballot measures. Since 1993, I have significantly participated in, advised, and/or closely observed 105 campaigns to preempt, stop, delay, and overcome anti-LGBT ballot measures and (on one occasion) move forward a pro-LGBT ballot measure.
I was able to do this work because I created, developed, institutionalized, and ran three of the premier leadership development programs that exist in the LGBT community today. From 1993 through 1998, I created and ran the national training program for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Victory Foundation; I trained openly LGBT candidates, potential candidates, campaign managers, and those taking very demanding leadership roles fighting anti-LGBT ballot measures.
From 1999 through 2006, I created and ran the Organizing and Training Department at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; I focused the Task Force organizing team to help state and local communities fight back when threatened with anti-LGBT ballot measures.
Starting in 2007, I created the LGBT Mentoring Project to mentor LGBT teams and leaders to build stronger, more effective educational and political organizations, most of which have been significantly focused on fighting anti-LGBT ballot measures. I continue to run this program, which in May of this year became part of the leadership LAB of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. For more information on my background, see the About the Author section of this report.
Given the difficulty our community has experienced with the same-sex marriage measures, all of us, myself included, are still near the beginning of the learning curve. This report therefore includes not only my best thinking, but also that of a team that helped me craft this report (see the report’s Acknowledgements), and an even larger team that I recruited to read and continually critique the report in the six months prior to publication. I owe them all my thanks for their advice and correction. I asked for their help because I thought it would make the report better, and it did.
Fundamentally, our community’s need to have more people think about why we have lost so many of these ballot measures is the reason why the report breaks with convention and makes the data available and accessible. Only with data can anyone think about Prop 8 in an intelligent way. The more of us who see the data and consider its implications—the more brains we have hard at work as we seek to bend history toward justice—the more likely we will take smart, strategic, and constructive next steps. If we as a community learn from the past, we can find a way forward. The alternative is to live out Rita Mae Brown’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
The need to learn from history is particularly acute because the central message of the anti-LGBT side isn’t new. Our opposition keeps recycling the spurious idea that kids are in danger. For example, the anti-gay Yes on 1 campaign in Maine in 2009 used exactly the same message as the Yes on 8 campaign in 2008. Both echoed anti-gay campaigns going back at least to 1977. Yet the pro-LGBT side often fails to anticipate that the time-tested anti-gay message is coming or underestimates its effect. The No on 8 campaign was inadequately prepared when the same ugly arguments surfaced in the final thirty days before the election. The more of us on the pro-LGBT side who learn and recall history, the more likely we will be prepared the next time. Preparation will increase our chances of success.
Similarly, some of the mistakes in No on 8 recall mistakes made by pro-LGBT campaigns across the country. See Appendix L for a discussion of the larger dynamics that lead our side to repeat strategic choices similar to those that failed us in the past. Foremost among them is hoping that avoidance of the kids issue will minimize its impact. It doesn’t. See Finding 4 for a full discussion of this complex topic.
Most campaigns rely significantly on polling. This is the accepted best practice in professional campaigns. But past experience underscores two serious polling defects. First, polling tends to overstate where we stand with voters on same-sex marriage when the topic is not receiving consistent, high-profile attention. Analysis of public opinion surveys on same-sex marriage conducted between 1988 and 2008 shows that when public controversy dies away, polling tends to overstate support for the pro-LGBT position. The March 2010 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) showing 50% of California adult residents supporting same-sex marriage is only the latest example.
Second, polling can give us bad advice. It can overstate the persuasiveness of our arguments: in Prop 8, it provided a mistakenly optimistic view of how voters respond to broad, abstract, public policy arguments we find easy to make; and it failed to alert us to the power of opposition arguments that we find uncomfortable to challenge.
This report values polling. Much of the insight it offers into what happened with Prop 8 owes a great deal to the smart polling commissioned by the No on 8 campaign. But that said, the LGBT community makes specific, predictable mistakes when we rely on polling to the exclusion of other data or expertise. Our actual lived experience in these campaigns—our history—offers a necessary corrective. Appendices I and J offer a discussion of both the strengths and deficiencies of polling. Appendix J also includes a short guide to critical thinking about polling, a review of best polling practices, and some examples of common misinterpretations of polling data.
For those who fear that this report will enlighten our opposition as to how to run an effective campaign, I have a message: they already know how to do that. This is not only revealed by our community’s won-loss record on the same-sex marriage ballot measures; it is also clear from reading Schubert and Flint’s analysis of the Yes on 8 campaign they ran. In their February 2009 article in Politics magazine, they make it plain that they know how they won: “[No on 8’s] failure to respond to the ‘consequences’ messages (especially the education message) in a timely fashion ultimately led to their downfall.” This tracks Findings 1 and 2 of this report, which would be the most sensitive findings in the report except that the opposition knows the information, has publicly proclaimed it, and has already applied it in Maine after winning with it in California.
The group without access to what is known about these campaigns is our own community. This report is my best effort to help those of us who care deeply about the LGBT community and its prospects to understand what we’re up against and how to be smarter as we fight for our rights. If many more of us commit now to ongoing, intelligent, strategic, and collective action, and measure the effectiveness of what we do as we go along, we can put our community in a position of strength before we next face a high-stakes vote. If we practice hard now, we will do much better then.
For the LGBT community, our quest for Wedding Day has too often looked like Groundhog Day. In that film, every day repeats the past one until the protagonist recognizes his own self-limiting patterns. For us as well, greater shared community knowledge and self-knowledge is the first step forward, away from the past.
There are five reasons why Prop 8 offers so many lessons and provides so many useful clues on how to conduct future campaigns.
on same-sex marriage of the 35 statewide votes to date. No on 8, the pro-LGBT campaign, tried more ideas, spent more money, and involved more people than any other ballot measure campaign on an LGBT issue in U.S. history. CRX: Prop 8 was, by far, the biggest, most amply funded, most hotly contested ballot measure
: To many, the Prop 8 loss was unexpected. Public polling showed No on 8 comfortably ahead until the end. Prop 8 offers valuable lessons on what should surprise us and what shouldn’t in similar future elections. CRX
and prevailed again. In both states, the pro-LGBT side lost ground in the closing weeks of the campaign to ads exploiting anti-gay prejudice. Ads like these will repeatedly appear until we know how to preempt or answer them. CRX: History keeps repeating itself, to our detriment. The most important strategic choices made by both sides in the Prop 8 campaign were not new. For example, in 2009 the tactics and message of the Yes on 8 anti-gay campaign were exported from California to Maine
managed to collect and reassemble much of it. This report summarizes data from more than 10,000 pages of documents and more than 40 hours of interviews with key No on 8 decision makers. CRX: No on 8 invested almost $1.2 million in research. For this report, the LGBT Mentoring Project
advertising. It was the dominant tactic of both campaigns. This report examines and measures the impact of that tactic with great precision. By tracking down every ad aired by both sides, and by documenting the dates, locations, and frequency of voter exposure to each ad. The bottom line is that, in the final six weeks of the campaign, some messages changed voters’ minds. This report shows which ads worked and which didn’t, and it identifies the voters most affected. CRX: Both Yes on 8 and No on 8 devoted their resources to paid TV
1. Our Base Shrank: Yes on 8 won by peeling away some voters who supported same-sex marriage only six weeks earlier. From September 22 through election day, at least 5% of voters moved towards the anti-gay side. No on 8 lost ground among many types of voters, but it lost most ground among parents, white Democrats, Latinos, and voters in the Greater Bay Area. Other voter groups favored Yes on 8 by bigger margins, including Republicans and African-Americans, but No on 8 did not lose nearly as much ground among them in the closing weeks. See Finding 1 and Appendix H for detailed discussion.
2. The Children’s Hour: The most effective decision made by either campaign—the one with the biggest impact on the outcome—was Yes on 8’s decision to appeal to anti-gay prejudice by dishonestly alleging danger to kids. Its most broadcasted ad, “Princes,” and most of its other ads charged that schools would expose kids to inappropriate information about gay people. The Yes on 8 ads changed votes on Prop 8 even though they only peripherally concerned marriage. See Finding 2 for detailed discussion.
3. Parents Ran Away: Almost three-quarters of the net movement toward the ban was among parents with kids under 18 living at home. Approximately 500,000 of them moved away from us. The lesson of the Yes on 8 campaign: when parents hear that their kids are in danger, even if it’s a lie some of them believe it—particularly when the lie largely goes unanswered. See Finding 1 for a more detailed discussion. The Chart above shows mothers switching sides after the “Princes” ad penetrates. More than fifty charts document key points throughout the report.
4. Smart But Too Late: The most costly mistake by No on 8 came in early- to mid-October: the two-and-a-half-week delay before rebutting “Princes” in TV ads. On the other hand, the two most effective moves made by No on 8 came in mid- to late October: airing the “O’Connell” ad to rebut the “Princes” argument that kids were in danger; and the remarkable fundraising surge that allowed No to outspend Yes in the closing days. See Finding 4 for detailed discussion.
5. Record-Breaking Fundraising: The No on 8 campaign raised more than $43 million, setting a new, higher standard for what the LGBT community and its allies can accomplish in the face of anti-LGBT attacks. Improved online fundraising contributed importantly to this achievement. See Finding 9 for detailed discussion.
6. Record-Breaking Field, With a Serious Flaw: No on 8’s field organizers recruited and mobilized 51,000 volunteers, quite possibly the largest number mustered for any LGBT campaign of any kind in California or U.S. history. Yet the field program had little impact on most voters it contacted, because it focused on building a list of identified supporters who were most already very likely to vote. With better focus, a field operation built on the strengths of this one could have great value in a future campaign. A telling fact is that No on 8’s strong recruitment effort engaged 51,000 people who wanted to help and did help. See Finding 8 for detailed discussion.
7. One-Sided Message Discipline: Much more so than No on 8, Yes on 8 maximized the memorability and impact of its communications by making sure its ads were clear, direct, and repetitive. See Finding 5 for detailed discussion.
8. Changing Horses in Midstream: No on 8 installed new leaders and consultants on September 29, thirty-seven days before Election Day. The new decision makers focused campaign operations and oversaw big improvements in fundraising. On the other hand, they ran ads very different from those created earlier. No on 8’s message discipline suffered as a result. See Finding 5 for detailed discussion.
9. Avoiding the G Word: Most of the No on 8 consultants as well as the second campaign manager and his team felt that the campaign message should deemphasize the impact of the ballot measure on LGBT people and avoid the word “gay.” Polling supported the same approach: clear arguments about LGBT people and use of the word “gay” tested less well than abstract arguments and vagueness. But the polling advice is very likely an artifact of the polling itself as well as a reflection of actual voter preferences, and is fundamentally irrelevant: voters were going to learn that Prop 8 concerned gay people whether or not No on 8 told them. Although the No on 8 executive committee resisted the pressure and insisted on the use of the word “gay” when it was operating as a decision-making body, tension between the two impulses compromised message discipline. Results included message tentativeness, gay-avoidance in the later No on 8 ads, and a “de-gayed” campaign in general. Ultimately, the only two No on 8 TV ads that had a measureable impact on voters were the only two that used the word “gay.” See Finding 5 and Appendix L for detailed discussion.
10. Not So Close: Prop 8 passed 52% to 48%, by 600,000 votes, but those numbers are misleading. If all voters had correctly understood how to vote to express their opinion on same-sex marriage, Prop 8 would have passed 54% to 46%, by a 1,000,000 vote margin. To reverse the result, we start out 1,000,000 votes behind. See Finding 7 and Appendix K for detailed discussion.
1. Start Now: Football teams watch game films and scrimmage between games. Students do homework. Maestros rehearse. We have to engage voters between campaigns—not just immediately before the next election—if we want better results. Now is the time to try out new ideas, new approaches, and new messages. What we learn now can help us plan smarter for the next campaign; and the stakes are much lower now than they will be closer to Election Day. See recommendations 1-3 for detailed discussion.
2. Evaluate Frequently: The weaknesses of No on 8 were not unique. They resemble past mistakes in similar campaigns. We can overcome the patterns that drive us to repeat the same mistakes if we frequently evaluate how we’re doing—not how we’re doing compared to past campaigns or to standard campaign practice, but how we’re doing compared to the specific work we need to get done to put ourselves in a position to win. At a minimum, every two months let’s seriously evaluate the performance of all consultants, the campaign manager, and top leadership. This is how to detect and correct problems early, avoid late-in-the-game regime change, and improve performance and accountability across the board. See recommendations 1-3 and Appendix L for detailed discussion.
3. Practice Persuasion: Before returning to the ballot, we must learn how to persuade some of those who voted against us on Prop 8 to reconsider. Let’s focus on those who lean against us or could go either way: they need to be persuaded to support same-sex marriage. This doesn’t minimize the need to also turn out to vote those already on our side who don’t reliably vote. See recommendations 1-3 for detailed discussion.
4. Counter Anti-Gay Prejudice: We must develop effective arguments to keep voters from being misled by false and defamatory allegations of harm to children historically used to instill fear in voters. In Prop 8, our base of supporters shrank in the final six weeks when the ads exploiting prejudice went on the air. To prevent the same thing from happening in future campaigns, we have to inoculate persuadable voters; shrink-proof our base; and be ready to beat back anti-gay, fear-based arguments when they surface. See recommendations 1-3 for detailed discussion.
5. Stay in the Driver’s Seat: Closer to an election, there is value to polling and to hiring consultants. But neither is a panacea. Both have blind spots—yet both tend to take over. Let’s be data-driven, not poll-driven; valuable information is not limited to polls. Let’s be expertise-driven, not consultant-driven; let’s cultivate expertise that allows us to work with and manage consultants, not simply defer to them. See recommendation 7 for detailed discussion.
6. Cultivate Allies: Knowing that we lost ground particularly among parents, white Democrats, Independents, and voters in the Greater Bay Area, let’s make one of our highest priorities building more and stronger alliances with leaders and groups that organize those constituencies. Likewise, let’s reach out to voter subgroups such as African-Americans that we lost by larger margins. The work outside of our base is more speculative; some of it will bear fruit, and some won’t. But the LGBT community has to do this work well in advance of the next ballot measure, or we will never measurably improve our standing with some of these voters. See recommendation 3 for detailed discussion.
7. Don’t Underestimate Directness and Honesty: In three different realms, No on 8 demonstrated the power of honesty. Honesty with our supporters was motivational: they donated in massive numbers when No on 8 honestly shared the bad news that we were in danger of losing. Avoidance of the most direct, honest response cost us a key slice of the electorate that started out with us: parents fell for the anti-gay “Princes” argument when we waited too long to reply with the truth. Being less than fully honest with ourselves affected part of the No on 8 polling; it tested messages in a way that yielded misleading answers. Honesty and directness do not guarantee success, and they may feel uncomfortable or simplistic when the stakes are so high. But if we can’t live with discomfort and take calculated risks, we will continue to make partially honest choices that have repeatedly led us to defeat. See recommendation 13 for detailed discussion.
8. Learn from Maine and Other States: California is unique. Maine is unique. And yet the similarities between their campaigns were far greater than the differences. We can’t let the uniqueness of each state diminish our curiosity about learning from each other. From Maine, California can learn at least three lessons. First, although pro-LGBT forces in Maine raised and spent 50% more money than anti-gay forces, their experience showed that money alone can’t solve the problem with “Princes” and its appeal to anti-gay prejudice. Second, that the strategy of avoidance—the idea that de-gaying the pro-LGBT campaign can shield voters from the reality that the election is primarily about LGBT people—doesn’t work no matter what form it takes. Third, when polling shows we’re ahead, don’t believe it. It’s too easy for a poll to underestimate the prejudice against us. Let’s resist overconfidence and assume we’re the underdog. Almost certainly, that’s the reality. See Recommendation 12 for detailed discussion.
9. Build a Team: To maximize the ability of the campaign manager, the consultants, and the board to function as a team, have one central office. Base the manager and key staff there, as well as the support staff that will keep the manager from being overwhelmed. Require (and pay) the consultants to come there for regular, face-to-face meetings. Have all board meetings there. Establish that the central office is responsible for addressing inquiries and needs from around the state quickly and effectively. Hire the campaign manager first, before hiring consultants; this increases the ability of the manager to manage them. Choose a manager whose style is consultative after establishing their capability and willingness to engage others appropriately, then give them the authority to make decisions. Choose a manager strong enough and smart enough to hold the consultants accountable. Build a board strong enough and expert enough to hold the manager accountable. See recommendations 9 and 10 for detailed discussion.
10. Include but go beyond the Usual Suspects: The small circle of people who are normally involved in crucial LGBT community matters and in California politics are very talented, but their talent is not enough. Reach out to additional people with smarts, expertise, and good judgment, who can apply their capabilities to the specific challenges we face. An example of No on 8 doing this well was when the second campaign manager and one of his deputies brought in a team of information technology experts from Google, Facebook, and Yahoo to fix the campaign’s online fundraising. The team of twenty IT volunteers saved the day, yet probably none of them numbered among the usual suspects to whom a campaign would normally turn. Part of a strong campaign is constantly searching for, trying out, and evaluating new talent. See Recommendation 10 for detailed discussion.
Immediately after the loss on Prop 8, many in the LGBT community and among our allies understandably wanted to make sense of the results. A set of ideas gained wide attention. Some are correct. Most, however, are wrong.
· The campaign consultants were unprepared when the Yes on 8 campaign launched attacks raising the issue of kids in danger. They had not adequately familiarized themselves with the history of attack messages used against the LGBT community in prior ballot measure campaigns, instead relying almost exclusively on polling and focus groups. Had they learned more from past anti-LGBT campaigns, they would have known the history of shortcomings in polling and focus groups to anticipate and answer those attacks. There is no guarantee that familiarity with history would have prepared No on 8 to respond effectively; but the lack of awareness meant that No on 8 was unnecessarily taken by surprise and unnecessarily unprepared. See Appendix L for a more detailed explanation.
· The campaign responded too late to Yes on 8’s “Princes” ad and its appeal to anti-gay prejudice. It refrained from responding even when internal polling showed the ad was having ongoing impact and was putting Yes on 8 over 50%. See Finding 4 for a more detailed explanation.
· Unlike Yes on 8, No on 8 missed the opportunity to repeat and reinforce one clear message throughout the campaign. See Finding 5 for a more detailed explanation.
· The campaign did not manage the consultants to obtain a consistent high level of performance. It lacked a campaign manager who was ready, willing, and able to do this. The campaign committee did not step in and act quickly when faced with the manager’s inability to get better results from the consultants. See Finding 4 and Appendix L for a more detailed explanation.
· Field staff and volunteers put substantial effort into identifying voters who were already supportive, most of whom were likely to vote. In a high-turnout, high-stimulus election like the 2008 presidential election, wiser tactics would have been to (a) attempt to persuade moveable voters and undecideds or (b) identify and turn out those supporters least likely to vote. See Finding 8 for a more detailed explanation.
· No on 8 raised an unprecedented amount of money, more than six times the most previously raised to fight an anti-LGBT ballot measure, and enough to wage a statewide campaign in California. See Finding 9 for a more detailed explanation.
· One reason for the late-stage fundraising success was that the executive committee and its second campaign manager overrode the advice of consultants. In early October, they went public with numbers from No on 8’s internal polls that showed the campaign behind. Prior, starting in May, most of the public polls showed No on 8 well ahead, while the campaign’s internal polling showed it was in trouble. The early lead by No on 8 in the public polls allowed many to wrongly believe that No on 8 would win easily. No on 8 was not entirely silent: as public polls came out, No on 8 said that its internal polling showed the election to be close. But the campaign had not forcefully taken exception to the rosy public poll numbers, eg by offering specific polling numbers of its own or having its pollster talk with the press. Fortunately, No on 8 corrected course just when last-minute appeals were likely to yield the greatest results. The result: 88% of No on 8’s individual donations came in the final month, after the information was released. See Finding 9 for a more detailed explanation.
· It happened late, but just in the nick of time. No on 8 brought in IT experts who greatly improved the Web site and online campaign presence, one of the critical elements that improved campaign fundraising. See Finding 9 for a more detailed explanation.
· No on 8 convened leaders from around the state; hired a manager when a ballot measure first looked imminent; tried out one general consultant in 2006, and finding performance wanting, hired a new one in 2007; and ran an anti-petitioning campaign to get the field operation up and running early. Likewise, Equality Maine was uncommonly thoughtful in its approach to winning legislative passage of a same-sex marriage law, correctly anticipating that the anti-LGBT side would force a repeal vote onto the ballot and laying important groundwork for Maine’s No on 1 campaign. By contrast, most pro-LGBT campaigns wait until the opposition qualifies an anti-LGBT measure for the ballot before beginning to prepare. See Appendix C for a timeline of No on 8 activities.
· Thanks in part to early and ongoing field activity, starting with but not limited to the anti-petitioning campaign, No on 8 recruited, trained, and mobilized more than 51,000 volunteers, quite possibly the largest number ever organized by the LGBT community in California or in any ballot measure campaign. Together, volunteers statewide worked 47,000 shifts totaling 150,000–200,000 hours. See Finding 8 for a more detailed explanation.