Prop 8 Report: The “Danger To Children” Theme Proved Decisive
August 2nd, 2010
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Mentoring Project has just released a massive report (PDF: 13MB/511 pages, or via HTML here) which analyzes more than 10,000 pages of unreleased data from the California Prop 8 campaign. The report’s author and project founder, Dave Fleischer, concludes that many common conceptions of why the No on 8 campaign lost the November 2008 ballot measure are factually wrong. In particular, Fleischer finds that the most critical element in the Yes on 8’s victory, aside from its massive fundraising, was the No on 8 campaign’s delay in countering the false “danger to children” message ran by supporters of Prop 8.
Here are what Fleischer called the “top 10 facts and findings of the report:
1. Our base shrank: Fleischer contends that that Yes on 8 was about to peel away voters who had supported same-sex marriage just six weeks before election day. He estimates that from September 22, at least 5% of voters moved towards the anti-gay side. The largest shifts occurred among parents, white Democrats, Latinas, and voters in the greater Bay area.
2. The Yes on 8 side’s “danger to children” message was very effective, and we keep ignoring that at our peril. This matches precisely my one enduring criticism of the No on 1 campaign in Maine: They didn’t learn the lesson of California. During that 2009 campaign in Maine, I looked at the messaging from both sides and found the “no” side’s response to be weak to nonexistent, particularly where it fails to address the other side’s dishonest “danger to children message.” I got a lot of flack for that from Matt Forman, but this report vindicates my concerns. Which leads directly to the next finding:
3. Parents ran away: Fleischer notes that “Almost three-quarters of the net movement toward the ban was among parents with kids under 18 living at home” — almost 500,00 of them. He went on:
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.
This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that African-American voters cost us the election. If we had been able to hold onto more of those parts of other demographics where we lost ground during the campaign — including demographics which should have been in our pocket (white Democrats and Bay Area voters), it would have made a huge difference in the outcome.
4. Smart but too late: The most costly mistake, according to Fleischer, was the delay on the No on 8 side in answering the “danger to children.” When they finally got around to issuing an ad to confront the Yes on 8 message, the response ad was one of “two most effective moves made by No on 8” (the other being the massive fundraising surge).
5. Record breaking fundraising. No on 8 was particularly effective with online fundraising.
6. Record-breaking Field. No on 8 mobilized some 51,000 volunteers. Unfortunately the impact of the massive grassroots effort was squandered because the campaign “focused on building a list of identified supporters who were most already very likely to vote.” It seems to me a greater effort should have been expended in identifying supporters who might not vote, and identifying the movable middle that could be persuaded through one-on-one contact.
7. One-Sided Message Discipline. The Yes on 8’s messaging was consisted, clear, direct, and repetitive. The No on 8’s messaging wandered, partly because – – –
8. No on 8 Changed Horses in Midstream: A month before election day, No o n8 installed new leaders, and the new ads were very different from those approved by prior leaders. However, I think it should be noted that the response ad which finally ran in response to the “danger to children” theme in late October was brought out by the new regime. So it seems to me the problem of inconsistent messaging wasn’t necessarily the fault of the new regime, but was perhaps more a reflection of the older regime’s reluctance to take the harder-hitting message head-on.
9. Avoiding the “G” word. Yup. Gay. Look, Prop 8 was all about gay marriage. Everybody new it. Those who supported Prop 8 knew it, those who opposed it knew it, and those who were in the middle knew it. It’s not like it was some big secret that Not on 8 had to keep hidden. Everyone was already talking about it. Fleischer wrote:
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 measurable impact on voters were the only two that used the word “gay.”
10: Not so close. This is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the outcome. Prop 8 passed by 600,000 votes. But Fleischer believes that another 400,000 thought that voting “no” was a vote against same-sex marriage, not a vote for it. “To reverse the result,” he writes, “we start out 1,000,000 votes behind. This runs counter to the belief that the election was so close that we can easily reverse the result.
Our opponents have a winning message. It’s a false message, but it wins elections every single time. Anita Bryant used the “danger to children” theme thirty-five years ago, and we are still losing battles to it today. That sad fact is, that it resonates, and we ignore it at our peril Fleschman writes:
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. … Foremost among them is hoping that avoidance of the kids issue will minimize its impact. It doesn’t.
This is an incredible document, one that should be required reading for all future campaign managers wherever same-sex marriage (or any other LGBT issue) comes up on the ballot.