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The Maine Message

This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the opinions of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin

Jim Burroway

October 29th, 2009

Stand For Marriage Maine’s “positive” feel-good approach didn’t last long. They have a new ad out:

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Notice how it’s loaded with all the bad stuff that you care about — out-of-state militant activists corrupting your values, gay teachers pushing their agenda on your children, militant gay activists in your schools and even your daycare centers. “IT’S ALREADY HAPPENED HERE! DON’T BE FOOLED!”

Here’s Protect Maine Equality’s response:

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In a nutshell: please help someone else.

I’ve expressed some concerns about Maine’s pro-marriage messaging and I’ve taken some flack for it. But this example crystallizes my concerns perfectly.

Frank Schubert, who is running the Stand for Marriage Maine campaign has recognized something that is very fundamental in all politics. Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Niel famously said that all politics are local. Schubert recognized that politics aren’t just local, but personal. It hinges on the question, “How will this affect me?” Karen Ocamb’s brilliant analysis of the California campaign which Schubert ran, which should be mandatory reading for everyone, describes very carefully how Schubert came to this conclusion:

During the Prop 8 Case Study workshop, Schubert said he, Flint and their team spent hours “looking at where people were and what we needed to do to reach them.”

What they found was that most Californians were very tolerant of same sex relationships. Schubert said:

“They didn’t see how gay marriage effected them, per se. It wasn’t their issue. It wasn’t something they cared to think about. It wasn’t something they wanted to talk about. It was an uncomfortable subject generally for them event to get their arms around.”

If we really want to win these battles, we need to begin with an understanding of this important truth:

Nobody Cares About Same-Sex Marriage

Oh, sure, people care about it. Everyone has an opinion about same-sex marriage. But nobody cares about in the sense that it is something that just doesn’t affect them.

Sure, virtually everyone who is gay and out cares. That’s about 4% of the population, and maybe not even that much in Maine. And the anti-gay religious right cares about it also, for whatever personal stake they’ve managed to take in it. That’s a much higher percentage, but it’s not even close to being a majority.

For everyone else, same-sex marriage is just not on their radar. And if they do care, it doesn’t rise to the level of other things they care about more and are willing to invest more of their attention to: education, taxes, health insurance, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are the things people care about and are willing to invest their own personal attention and energy to. They care enough to learn more about these things because one way or another, they all touch on them personally. As Schubert’s research revealed:

“At the end of the day, people vote on issues based on how they think it will impact them and their families. We spent a great deal of time trying to understand what impacts could we develop that would work. Communication has to be aimed at and appeal to those self interests of the electorate.” [Emphases mine]

And people don’t see how same-sex marriage will impact them and their families — especially not enough to pay attention to the issue and go out and vote in an off-year election on someone else’s problem. This, by the way, is just as much a problem for the “Yes” side as it is for the “No” side. So how do you fix it?

Change the topic from something nobody personally cares about to something everyone cares about.

That’s right. In California (and in Maine), it meant taking an election about something nobody cares about (gays being allowed to marry) and making it about something that everyone cares about (for example, education). Again, Karen quotes Schubert with the a-ha moment:

“What the research showed was that we could not win by simply affirming traditional marriage. People said, ‘Yeah, OK – but what’s the problem here. How does this impact me?’…. This forced acceptance [by the court] that gay marriage was now mandatory was a big deal – the consequences – specifically regarding religious freedom, religious expression and teaching of gay marriage in schools – and the education consequences become the most powerful in the course of the campaign.

We bet the campaign on consequences – especially on education. Education from the beginning – while it was one of three consequences – it was the one that was the most emotionally charged and the most powerful. And I remember testing an ad in focus groups in Southern California….[One ad was} with the Wirthlin couple from Massachusetts. She’s telling the story of her son Joey - about he’s being taught how a prince can marry another prince – and he’s in second grade.

There's an African American gentleman in this group watching the ad [who] just shakes his head. So I [told the researcher to] ask him what he meant. And the guy says, ‘I’ll tell you what, if that happened to me – I would be pissed.’

And that was the moment that we decided that the campaign would rely on education.”

You could argue, then, that California’s Prop 8 wasn’t about same-sex marriage, but about education. And it worked. People don’t care personally one way or another about same-sex marriage, but everyone cares deeply about education. And so Schubert made it about education; education is what people discussed and debated, and on election day people voted about education because that was what the election came to be about because it is what they personally cared about.

And it should come as no surprise that Stand for Marriage Maine is working precisely the same strategy in Maine. They are making the election about education, a subject that everyone cares about.

Protect Maine Equality running a masterful grass-roots effort and one of the best get-out-the-vote campaings I’ve ever seen. Their success in earned media (op-eds, television and press coverage) has been outstanding. As of Monday, they are also enjoying a lead in the polls (Update: But this new poll shows them at a dead heat). There is so much that they’re getting exactly right, and win or lose, they have a lot to teach other campaigns.

But in their messaging, they are responding by trying to get people to care about something that fundamentally doesn’t affect them one way or another. That worries me in the closing days of the campaign. I really hope they know what they’re doing.

Comments

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David C.
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

If this “bait and switch” it’s not about marriage its about education strategy is ever to be defeated, it is now, in Maine, where it will happen. We can dodge the move, meet it head on, or ask people to actually reason through the issue. No matter what though, eventually people will have to think and not just react viscerally. Maybe that’s just too much to ask of voters in today’s America, but we had better figure this out or we will forever be fighting a war of attrition.

Cyrus
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

As sad as it is to read what you wrote, I’m afraid that you will be right come Tuesday. We saw this in California…and we’ll likely fall into the same trap again in Maine and in Washington.

The anti-gay side is changing what this debate is about. And if the pro-gay marriage side loses, it will be because Yes On 1 struck fear into everyone with their lies and misleading statements about education.

Logically, we know we are right. But this vote won’t come down to logic.

Sadly, as long as we can’t fight back against this strategy, they are going to keep using it against us.

palerobber
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

but the reason that most people don’t feel like gay marriage affects them personally is because it doesn’t.

so in order to make some argument that it does we’d have to take an approach that is just as dishonest as the anti-marriage side.

Ben in Oakland
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Jim your message is exactly what I asked the last time you posted on this. The anti-gays have admittred that they are making this up, they have it as a public record, and yet, our side IS NOT DOING A DAMN THING WITH IT.

What gives here?

Cyrus
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Per Palerobber’s comment:

I don’t think we need to be dishonest. We just need to hit the other side hard when they are being misleading and outright lying and call them out for what they are doing.

It’s tough though. Can a 30-second commercial really reason with people…or can it only appeal to their gut reactions.

I’m no strategist…but there has to be some way to cut through their arguments and win these types of debates.

Bruno
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

I’m more & more convinced that these TV ads don’t change much. One thing that stood out to me in a Field poll towards the end of the prop 8 campaign is that people generally felt CU’s/DP’s were good enough compromises to this issue. In California, where DP’s are “almost” equal to marriages concerning rights, I could see that.

In Maine, they’ve had a huge opportunity to show the people that Maine’s registry partnership deal in no way affords lesbians and gays anything near equality, and that is indeed the case. Even though this is something that doesn’t affect a lot of people directly, people do have a sense of right and wrong. I don’t think they’ve made that case, thus, we’ll just have to hope that the timing is OK for a vote in our favor. Personally, I think we lose something like 51-49.

Guffey
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Over and over ad nauseum voters have shown us that they aren’t logical and don’t think (some do, but NOT the majority.). They *feel*! So who’s being stupid here and who’s being smart?

YesOn1 is running beautifully, tried and true. How embarrassing to know ol’ Maggie, Pete and Brian are a whole lot smarter than us… while we wallow in our pitiful “but, gosh, they weren’t honest!”.

I still hope like heck NoOn1 wins but I sure don’t expect it.(and yes, I gave $, and yes, I sent them emails with my viewpoint, so no gripin’) I’m crossing my fingers for 51% and will GLADLY apologize ’til the cows come home if we get over 55.

Timothy Kincaid
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Maybe it’s time to go after the public using a page from the anti-gay playbook. Go for fear. Something that Mainers can really fear.

Tell them that this is just an attempt by some churches to dictate their dogma by force to those they can’t convince to come to their church voluntarily. It may sound all anti-religion, but it is also scary as hell.

I’d love to see a commercial that says,

“Some churches don’t think that gay citizens should be entitled to the same rights as straight citizens. But they just can’t get Mainers to sit in their pews and agree with them.

So now they are trying to force Mainers, both secular and of other faiths, to follow their church dogma by force of law. A collection of churches and other out-of-state religious organizations are paying for a campaign to deny supportive churches and justices of the peace the ability to recognize same-sex marriages.

You may not think this matters because you aren’t gay.

But you should ask yourself what they will try next. Will they come after you and your marriage?

It’s already happening in California. After Proposition 8 passed banning gay marriage, papers were submitted and signatures are being collected RIGHT NOW to ban divorce in that state!!

Is that what we want in Maine? Do we want to turn over our state government to a collection of Bishops and Reverends for them to decide how we should live?

No. And to protect your own freedom, vote NO on Question 1″

Paul in OC
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Thank you Jim Burroway for the great article and great analysis. You’ve hit the nail exactly on the head: how many times is our “our side” going to continue with this completely ineffective message of “fairness.” The general population doesn’t give damn about fairness, unless it directly affects them … and gay marriage doesn’t affect them.

One of the most powerful arguments the “other side” has is “Protect the family, protect the children.”

AND WE HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO TURN THIS ARGUMENT TOTALLY AROUND.

The ad that we should have run against Prop 8 here in California and that Maine should be running right now is simply a little girl looking pleadingly into the camera saying, “I love my mommies. My mommies married last year. But now some people want to destroy my mommies’ marriage. They want to destroy my family. Don’t destroy my family. Please protect my family. Please protect all Maine families. Please protect all Maine’s children. Don’t destroy my family.” Announcer: “Protect our children … all our children and all our families. Don’t let your family be next.”

Game over. There isn’t a mother in her right mind who would then vote against gay marriage.

Richard Rush
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

To those who say it’s all about education, I would say: no, not really.

It’s really about exploiting the ignorance of most straights about how their children may become gay. And that terrifies most parents. They fear their children could be taught or influenced to be gay, and they fear that social acceptance will convey to their children that “choosing” to be gay is okay. That’s what we are dealing with, and in that environment it can be an easy decision to vote Yes on 1. Our side’s message about fairness and equality doesn’t mean much to these people.

There are some good reasons why full social acceptance and equality for gays also benefit our entire society. But our side is not talking about that.

Christopher™
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Personally, I would have loved to have seen a campaign message like Timothy’s above. Really go for the jugular, and bring the religious issue into the forefront.

You can get both religious and non-religious people to agree that promoting theology by force of law is deeply un-American. And then you put the anti-gay churches on the defensive, and force them to come up with an anti-equality argument that isn’t religious. They’ll have a next to impossible time doing that.

We all know this is the case with every campaign. People would see it’s a religious agenda and we win. Simple. Why hasn’t anyone tried this?

Burr
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

I’ve always pondered ideas for ads like Tim’s.

It’d be pretty ballsy to run that, though. I have no idea if that’d work or blowback.

Maybe instead of that, point out how they ARE fighting against ALL gay equality in ALL forms. After all a significant majority of Americans support gay equality in abstract, they just recoil at the details. People mostly vote against marriage because they just want it to stop there. They need to point out how rights and benefits were stripped from domestic partnerships in Arizona, how the same people are fighting against domestic partnerships in Washington, and how all the anti-gay amendments try to ban all forms of equality. Point out that it’s not just against marriage, it’s against the wishes of everyone who wants things to be equal, regardless of their preferred means of achieving it. Toss in their disapproval of hate crimes and employment and housing protections. And then throw in the efforts to repeal no fault divorce.. They need to be painted as the out of control theocrats out to destroy all semblance of personal liberty that they really are.

SharonB
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

@Timothy:
And, I would hit the uncaring with the fact that the next target of the RR is taking away contraception for all, including single straights and MARRIED heterosexual couples!!!

It is not only true, but terrifying to the heterosexuals out there.

Leonard Drake
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Someone should forward both Timothy and SharonB’s proposals to the No on 1′s campaign. I, too, am growing sick and tired of the “we have to be nice” movement in the LGBT political response to the RR. It is time to fight just as dirty, but with HONEST and SUPPORTABLE facts! There is WAY too much to be lost to justify playing nice.

Chris McCoy
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Richard Rush said:

It’s really about exploiting the ignorance of most straights about how their children may become gay. And that terrifies most parents. They fear their children could be taught or influenced to be gay, and they fear that social acceptance will convey to their children that “choosing” to be gay is okay

I think this is what’s really going on here. Talking about “education” is really a red herring – parents are not getting upset that their children will be taught “about homosexuality” in school.

What parents are afraid of is the underlying message – that “the gays are coming for your children.”

As long as we don’t address the fears that people have, however unfounded and irrational they are, we will continue to lose. Fear is a powerful, driving force – and as long as we continue to ignore that people are afraid of the gay, we might as well be tilting at windmills.

Christopher Waldrop
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

At first I was concerned about the potential of an ad like Timothy’s, simply because anytime I hear someone talk about “using a page from the anti-gay playbook” I think, regardless of whether it’s effective, is it right to stoop to their tactics? But Timothy doesn’t really stoop; that ad idea is more grounded in fact than what NOM has been saying.

On a more personal level, I know several people who’ve looked at issues like this and said, “It doesn’t affect me because I’m not gay.” And I’ve asked them, what if your son or daughter is gay or a lesbian? What about other family members, or friends? Do you think they should be subject to this kind of discrimination? I’m not trying to change minds, and it’s not something that would work as an advertising campaign. I’ve just reached out to reasonable people to say, even if you’re not gay this does affect you because it affects someone you care about.

hb
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. I do know that Jesse Connolly has run a number of successful political campaigns, including the “Maine Won’t Discriminate” one in 2005.

I’ve learned a few things over the last eight weeks of phone banking, and talking to people in the street.

Most of the ‘yes’ voters are not open to any kind of dialogue.

I know I have turned a number of ‘yes’ leaners and fence-sitters to the ‘no’ side, and every time it was done with reason, logic, and the stressing of fairness. Had I tried the scare tactics suggested here, they would have rolled their eyes in disgust and walked away.

The current ads may not convince some people, but they aren’t likely to turn anyone away, either. The ‘yes’ ads are doing that. I’ve heard people say, “I’m a Christian, but those ads are outrageous! I will not support them.”

In the end, victory will go to whichever side gets the votes out. Tuesday morning, I’ll be knocking on doors, and Tuesday afternoon, I’ll be making calls. I hope it’s sunny and warm. Or at least, above freezing.

Ben in Oakland
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

I have said repeatedly to anyone who would listen that that the failure to address head on the issues of religion, prejudice, and children is why we keep losing.

I have also said that the campaign is all about the gays-are-gonna-get-your children fear-mongering, and that has to be addressed head on and called out for what it is.

Eddie89
October 29th, 2009 | LINK

Burr wrote:

…They need to point out how rights and benefits were stripped from domestic partnerships in Arizona…

Just to clear up the record, Arizona has NEVER had domestic partnerships or anything close to that.

All we’ve had since 1996 is DOMA.

We did defeat an anti-gay, anti-domestic partnership constitutional amendment back in 2006.

But, in 2008 they came back and just took out the hetero domestic partnerships and made their constitutional amendment strictly anti-gay and it passed by a landslide!

JonasB
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

Fear tactics are sadly what work in most campaigns. I would love to see our side use some kind of ’1984′ / Orwellian scare tactics. Show images of the government taking away rights that other people would care about (freedom of speech, privacy rights, etc).

Maajour
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

There is something fundamentally wrong when Christian people use focus groups to run ad campaigns to discriminate against people who are the outcast and lesser of these.

David Wood
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

Boy O Boy do I agree with Timothy! An ad should be run using his words verbatim. Especially the fact that they are trying to ban divorce in California. Then they’ll go after contraception, sex education etc.

Eddie89
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

Reminds me of the video that Courage Campaign made with the two Mormon missionaries going into a married lesbian couple’s home and looking for their civil marriage license and then tear it up in front of them. Here’s the link to the video.

Too bad this didn’t get to air on TV in California. I’m sure it would have gotten more people to vote No on 8.

I’ve read in many places that the electorate of Maine is more “educated” and not as easily swayed by the fear based ads that Yes on 1 is currently running.

I guess we’ll find out for sure next week.

Leonard Drake
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

Pissed off, I forwarded this op-ed piece, a respectful note I created, along with the repondant messages to info@equalityformaine (I think that was the website email address.)

I hope the webmasters of this site are not angry with me, and this was not in violation. I honestly hope whoever is in charge of Equality Maine READS either my note or this piece on Box Turtle Bulletin, and creates at least one advertisement in the style suggested by Timothy.

If we sit idly by and watch Yes on 1! win, it will be a sad statement for the loss of equal rights within the LGBT community for years to come — not just for Maine, but for the entire country, as yet another victory for the Religious Right will provide more energy to their movement.

Leonard Drake
October 30th, 2009 | LINK

Correction to previous post: “I hope the webmasters of this site (Box Turtle Bulletin) are not angry with me, and I HOPE this was not in violation … of the terms of service. If so, my sincerest apologies.

Maajour
October 31st, 2009 | LINK

To Eddie89:
That link to the Mormon video was very good. You are right…it should have been aired. Was it a satire or the real deal? Either way, it was quite effective in its delivery. Thanks for sharing.
The link I am referring to is:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q28UwAyzUkE

Amicus
November 1st, 2009 | LINK

Jim, don’t despair too much. Afterall, the polling hasn’t changed too much, so neither side is moving opinion in big numbers, right? That says something. In fact, I could be dead wrong, but a lot of this last-minute fear stuff appeals to a particular type of anti-gay prejudice that is a hallmark of certain ‘hardcore’ homophobes – those who fear that they are being over-run by homosexuals, losing control of their lives. In themselves, they are probably a smallish group.

The Maine folks made a bet that actually showing couples wouldn’t turn off non-gay voters. So far, that seems to be true, right? It’s a step.

What if your child were gay or lesbian? That seems to me to be a point of common departure, a self-interest.

One can do a lot of diffuse the fear by sticking to the numbers. For instance, “On Tuesday, before you vote and after you vote, the number of gay couples and gay kids in Maine won’t change.”

Last, it is possible to raise the bar on NOM, without going too negative. Change in the constitution? That’s near permanent! Are you sure you want that on your conscience, if you are wrong? The law, such as it is, is working and no one has been threatened, except that they have been told to be so by out of state money. There is more. Take the perspective of the parent(s) of Lawrence King’s killer. Prejudice, ignorance, and bigoty, such as NOM’s, might allow some kid to learn how to treat gays by the slurs they learn on the playground. Isn’t is better to have out, open role models – even openly gay teachers – , as a way to dissuade people of their worst fears? It’s a tough angle, but it could be made to ‘work’, I think, under an ‘if outside money has it’s way, it could happen here, in Maine’.

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