The LGBT community should consider how to both (a) offer fuller support for its leaders when they step up and face brutally difficult situations, and simultaneously (b) hold those leaders accountable for the decisions they make. This will require the LGBT community to recognize both the good and the bad conduct in a difficult situation, rather than judge a leader or a choice as either unequivocally terrific or awful.

After interviewing most of the decision makers in the No on 8 campaign, I am struck by the fact that every single one of them made or substantially contributed to at least one vitally important and positive choice that improved the conduct of the campaign. Many of them also, inadvertently, on one or more occasions, contributed to error. None of them made decisions that were 100% lousy or 100% genius.

We can and should have a better and more successful campaign in the future than the No on 8 campaign. But it does a disservice both to the leaders of the campaign and to our community as a whole to overlook or minimize the things the campaign did right, just as it does a disservice to overlook or minimize the choices that contributed to losing. If we want our most capable leaders and potential leaders to take on difficult roles in the future, we have to find a way not only to critique and correct their mistakes, but also to live with the reality that they will nonetheless make mistakes. We have to find a way to discuss mistakes that does not involve vilification and humiliation.

The Dilemma

There is enormous pressure for future campaign decision makers to be averse to risk. But if we want new and better thinking, we need future decision makers to take some risks.

To break from ineffectual choices of the past, decision makers in any future campaign will have to make new and different choices. But no one—including me—knows an easy way to win. No campaign has yet found the effective way to preempt or rebut the anti-gay message we know is coming in future campaigns. New and different choices will be a calculated risk.

Losing the election is not the only risk facing future decision makers. They will also face serious risk to their reputation. Many who worked hard on the No on 8 campaign faced withering criticism after the loss. Leaders know, of course, that criticism is inherently part of any community dialogue after a vote like this. But if part of the public critique communicates a fundamental lack of respect or sets a tone of gratuitous unkindness, that affects how either established or new community leaders weigh their own personal decisions about whether and how publicly to get involved in a future campaign.

Even if the public discussion after the Prop 8 vote had been constructive and factual, innovative choices can always make decision makers look foolish. Those who come forward in a future campaign may find it far safer to do what has been done before than to venture into uncharted or partially uncharted territory. Or they may come forward fully intending to make different choices yet find that as the campaign nears its conclusion they become more averse to risk. This is particularly true if voter research for a future campaign has the same blind spots as so many past campaigns. Then the seductive power of the old choices will return.

In 2008, No on 8’s polling and focus groups understated the power of the anti-gay argument about kids; details are laid out in Appendix I. The inability of the polling to fully gauge the impact of the kids argument led the media consultants to prepare too little to counter it. This does not excuse lack of preparation. But it partially explains why well-regarded consultants, following their usual practices and exercising ordinary diligence, were led astray. Habits and assumptions that may have served them reasonably well in other campaigns served them poorly here.

Decision makers in a future campaign will have no guarantee that new choices will lead to victory. They will be understandably reluctant to disregard some of their polling, overrule their consultants’ counsel, break the mold, and risk exposing themselves to skepticism, dissent, and criticism. The truth is that many LGBT community leaders are not experts in campaigns, elections, public opinion, or polling. They don’t want to have to second-guess or defy their consultants; they hired the consultants hoping to defer to them!

Yet the opposite approach, knee-jerk rejection to consultant thinking, is also a poor solution. Many consultants are smart. They often get things right. How can decision makers in a future campaign decide when to buck conventional wisdom, when to challenge their consultants, and when to apply their own judgment to the situation at hand?

The Solution

To minimize the risks in risk taking, seek out expertise…

The answer is for the team of future decision makers—eg, the executive committee or campaign committee—to include some who either:

·         Bring substantial preexisting knowledge and experience to the table;

·         Make a big, early investment in learning about campaigns and elections.

These members of the decision-making body can’t and don’t replace consultants, nor will they likely equal in experience the consultants hired by the campaign. But these members need to learn enough to ask probing questions and smart follow-up questions. They need to be able to push the consultants to do their best thinking. They need to recognize when the consultants are doing second-rate thinking or second-rate work. And all of this is not enough without one additional consideration in the assembly of the campaign decision-making team: the future decision makers who constitute the board need to hire a campaign manager who has the experience, expertise, and temperament to manage the consultants. Without this kind of a manager, the consultants will tend to make most of the major decisions without those decisions being subject to the kind of searching scrutiny they deserve.

…and divergent, thoughtful points of view

Our chances of winning in the future are also directly related to whether we find a way for well-informed people with different points of view to contribute to the strategic thinking, the hard, unglamorous preparatory work, and to every step we take toward victory. Winning will be elusive otherwise. It is too hard to alter established social prejudice, even at the margins, with anything less than the best team effort the LGBT community and our allies can muster.

To make room for more good thinking, we in the LGBT community will have to find respectful ways not only to disagree, but also to resolve disagreement. For example, if we prepare for any future campaign far enough in advance, we can extend respect to a wide variety of ideas by taking the time to try them out in rigorous experiments. This is how we can find a way to live with the fact that some of our cherished ideas for strategy and tactics will prove to be incorrect—and that some people we just don’t like will turn out to be right some of the time.

Both the leadership of any future campaign and the LGBT community as a whole can make choices that lead to clearer communication, greater shared understanding of campaign strategy, and more consistent mutual accountability. It is beyond the scope of this case study to evaluate all of the strengths and weaknesses in the approach taken by the No on 8 campaign, or even to summarize them since different participants in the campaign and different members of the community have widely varying views of the choices made and the rationales for them.

I offer my suggestions from my own experience.  They are not a commentary on the No on 8 campaign. No on 8 almost certainly considered and acted on some of these ideas, either in whole or in part.