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.
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
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
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
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
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.