Three Important Questions To Ask Before Mounting A Campaign To Overturn A Marriage Ban

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011

The respected analyst Nate Silver has a major piece at The New York Times’ blog about the prospects for marriage bans if they were brought up today on the ballot. It’s worth a read. He uses two models based on public opinion polls, and based on those models, he says that in Maine, where LGBT advocates have announced a drive to place marriage equality back on the ballot for 2012, voters are predicted to approve same-sex marriage just three years after rejecting it by about six percentage points. But it’s worth recalling that in 2009, Silver also thought the ban on same-sex marriage would fail:

When we last discussed this model, it gave Maine’s Question 1 — which reversed the State Legislature’s decision to provide for same-sex marriage — a 3-in-4 chance of being defeated. In fact, the measure won and same-sex marriage was repealed in Maine, although the results were close and within the model’s margin of error. (There’s more discussion of the Maine result here.)

He’s done a lot of tweaks to his model since then, and he now believes that Maine — and California — would have a shot at overturning their marriage bans. According to Nate’s analysis, Maine has a better prospect of overturning its ban than California does. But the one thing that his model cannot predict is the effectiveness of the two particular campaigns — the pro-equality and anti-gay sides — to shape the messages and motivate voters who are much more interested in other things. And the other thing to keep in mind, is that this is only a model. Models can only try to predict the future, about the same way your local meteorologist tries to predict the future, using very sophisticated computer models based on weather patterns. There still remains that nasty margin of error, and Silver doesn’t disclose the possible impacts of that error.

But even if the models were perfect, it’s still up to the campaigns themselves to turn those predictions into reality. And as I mentioned yesterday, it’s worth raising the questions of what kind of a campaign they intend to run this time around. I’m sure Maine’s LGBT advocates have learned quite a few lessons since 2009, but if they are relying on the perception that they’ve changed a lot of minds in their d0or-to-door grassroots campaigns since then, then I worry that we are setting ourselves up for a very expensive fall again.

Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly support every LGBT American who is willing to stand up and fight for our rights. Maine has my complete support. But I think that a key part of supporting a campaign is the ask the hard questions, particularly where we’ve seen mistakes before. And the biggest mistakes we have made in the past, we’ve made repeatedly, not just in Maine.

Mistakes is a loaded word, so let me clarify further: in raising these issues, it’s not my intention to question the commitment or competence of those who ran past campaigns. They worked their hearts out, and did the best jobs they could possibly do with the information they had at that time. The mistakes that were made were not, I believe, a reflection of their competence — when those mistakes are made the first time. But if they are repeated again, then it will truly be the case that we only have ourselves to blame.

Having said that, I think the mistakes we made in the past centered on three critical questions we failed to ask.

Question 1: What do voters really care about?

Here’s the first hint: It’s not same-sex marriage. Frank Schubert, who ran the Maine’s 2009 anti-gay campaign as well as the California’s pro-Prop 8 campaign recognized that fact early on. As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Niel famously said, 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 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.”

Karen wrote that analysis in 2009 as a warning to Maine, a warning that was not heeded. I still think her analysis is just as germane today as it was two years ago. If we really want to win these battles, we need to begin with an understanding of this important but uncomfortable truth: Nobody cares about same-sex marriage.

Yes, I exaggerate. Everyone has an opinion about same-sex marriage. But nobody cares about it in the personally imperative sense simply because it is something that just doesn’t affect them. A lot of people care about global warming, but we’re not exactly seeing hybrid and electric cars flying off the dealers’ lots or solar panels sprouting on rooftops.

When people go to the pols, we cannot expect them to base their vote on altruism. People vote on how an issue affects them personally. And until we make the issue about something they have a personal stake in rather than a relatively abstract notion of fairness and equality (both are politically meaningless concepts: even bigots think they’re fair and open-minded), we’re not going to really get their attention.

Question 2: What do voters really care about?

That question is the same as question 1. Notice a pattern here? I’m repeating it because successful elections are all about how to get a voter to be motivated by something he or she really cares about — something personal. Schubert understood that if voters didn’t care about marriage — which most of them personally don’t have a stake in —  they could be made to care about something else. That something else in both California and Maine turned out to be education. And so California and in Maine, Schubert took an election about something nobody cares about (gays being allowed to marry) and made it about something that everyone cares about. 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.

Nate Silver’s models are based on whether people want to ban same-sex marriage. But it asks the wrong question. If he had asked whether schools want to “teach homosexuality in the schools,” he would get a very different answer. That’s why Schubert changed the question in voters’ minds.

Now you know that the issue of education was a red herring, and I know that the issue of education was a red herring, but voters don’t know that. And the beauty of that strategy is this: false charges and fears can be implanted in a little as thirty seconds, but they have an exceptionally long shelf life. Remember Willie Horton? Those adds ran twenty three years ago! Maine voters remembered the education issue very well, but I’m sure they’ve forgotten the pro-equality’s answer to that.

Question 3: What do voters really care about?

Voters care about a lot of things. They care about jobs, taxes, the economy, education (still), foreign wars, immigration — all kinds of things. They don’t care about equality because too many of them think that we have it already through other means. And they don’t get motivated by being preached to about fairness because they think they are already fair. Campaigns aren’t opportunities to teach voters what they don’t know, but rather the time to confirm to voters what they already believe with the issues they care about. That’s why our opponents changed the topic of the election.

The case of Arizona’s Prop 107 campaign in 2006 is instructive, simply because it is the ONLY campaign in which anti-marriage forces lost. People tend to dismiss it as a fluke, but it embodies a very valuable lesson. The proposed amendment to the Arizona constitution that year would have not only barred same-sex marriage, but all other domestic partnership registries as well. LGBT advocates ran a brilliant campaign pointing out how this proposed law would affect straight people — including large numbers of senior citizens who live together but haven’t married because they don’t want to give up their social security benefits. Because they weren’t married, they relied on local domestic partnership registrations for access to local services and to be able to make medical decisions for each other. It also affected a large number of unmarried straight firefighters and police officers, whose significant others would lose access to health benefits. Because it became an issue that straight people cared about — the majority in Arizona as elsewhere — it went down in defeat. A different amendment passed in 2008; that one focused exclusively on same-sex marriage, and LGBT advocates failed to find a hook that everyone could care about. And when we fail to find a hook that everyone cares about, we will lose every time.

And by the way, this isn’t true just about LGBT politics. It’s politics in general. When people voted in 2008 for president, most of them voted based on a desire for “hope” and “change” and “Yes We Can!” on the one hand, or — okay, I can’t remember what McCain wanted us to vote about. Maybe that’s why he lost as badly as he did.

Our failure to answer these three very important questions in the past have become a costly and painful lesson. Our failure in the future to heed those lessons will leave us with no one else to blame but ourselves.

K in VA

July 1st, 2011

We’ve done some pretty dumb things over the past several years, shooting ourselves in the collective foot by taking on unwinnable battles, and shooting each other in mutual firing squads among advocacy groups working at cross-purposes.

I hope we’ve learned a lot of lessons from these defeats, particularly from how we fucked up in California and how we won in New York.

But I’ve heard some stuff in recent days along the lines of “If we can make it in New York, we can make it anywhere.” Not so, folks.

My wife and I are trapped in Virginia these days. But most of our contributions go to efforts in other states because, let’s face it, we’re years away from accomplishing much of anything here.

I encourage everyone to think about a national war for equality. Yes, many battles are fought in the states — but they should only be fought where we have a fair chance of success. The best generals know where to strike and where to stand back.

If you haven’t read Nate Silver’s latest analysis, do so. And then reread it and learn.


July 1st, 2011

Jim –

On a slightly related note, this WSJ article about NY is one of the best I’ve read about how this happened. The NYT coverage has been largely about people and color, this one talks about hiring Republican lobbiests and pollsters to talk to Republicans. The good stuff begins about half way down.


July 1st, 2011

Jim, what are your recommendations?

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011


If I had the means to come up with a list of possible issues and test them with polling data and focus groups and determine which of those themes were the winning themes — or whether I needed to go back to the drawing board again until I found a winning theme — I’d be able to answer that question. But if I could answer that question, I’d be a very highly paid consultant.

And so my recommendation is to either do that work or hire a consultant — or fire any and all consultants who don’t have an answer to your question and don’t go forward with a campaign until you know for sure what will motivate voters to your side. This is what winning campaigns do, and it is what losing campaigns either fail to do, or fail to do well.

enough already

July 1st, 2011

Absolutely brilliant.
Totally correct.
And worthless. The homosexuals making the decisions in Maine are so not interested in what anybody who actually understands how these things are lost has to say that it’s a total waste of time.
I’ve been in many conversations since the Maine loss and have seen virtually no ability to seek help from people who have a clue how to fight our enemies.
So, we will lose again.

Ben In Oakland

July 1st, 2011

And I keep saying that if

1) we don’t start talking loudly about prejudice, children, family, and religion,and

2) aim a part of the campaign at gay people urging them to talk to their friends, neighbors, and congregations, and most important of all– COME OUT,

3)show religious leaders of many denominations in commericals talking about THEIR religious freedom and THEIR congregants

4) Have commercials that show real live gay poeople and their families,not just parents or neighbors, talking about why marriage is important to them

and 5) community outreach and speaking, which the no on 8 peoplewere complete and utter failures at…

and we can kiss yet another probable win good bye.

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011

Actually, Ben, all of those things were tried in Maine and failed. In fact, those were the centerpieces of Maine’s campaign.

Getting people to care about someone else never works in politics. That’s the whole point of what I wrote. It’s all about “me” every time. When it comes to the voting booth, nobody gives a crap about other people. We need to make this issue about something they care about, just like our opponents did.

Mark F.

July 1st, 2011

I’m afraid Jim is correct here. With public opinion drifting our way, we can start winning. However, after the CA and Maine debacles, we really need to stop pissing money down the toilet.

Maybe we should hire the “Yes on 8” campaign manager.


July 1st, 2011

I don’t like people.

Timothy (TRiG)

July 1st, 2011

People don’t like being lied to. And our opponents are liars. They lie repeatedly and without shame or compunction. In Maine, specifically, the leader of the campaign against equality admitted publicly to having lied.

Liar is a strong word. It’s a harsh word. It’s a correct word and a word we should not be afraid to use.



July 1st, 2011

There’s a HUGE mistake in your reasoning. In Florida, the pro-gay side also said that the amendment would impact heterosexuals seniors who weren’t married, firefighters, etc — but they lost anyway.


July 1st, 2011

It sounds like, in order to persuade persons who are neutral or opposed to marriage equality, we must communicate ways in which a vote for marriage equality would help them personally, or ways in which a vote against marriage equality would hurt them personally.

Assuming that most of these voters are not gay themselves, it is hard to see how we can accomplish that, especially since (in my experience, at least) people who are not themselves gay are often “offended” by attempts to equate the plight of gay people to their own situations (see, e.g., the “offense” many black heterosexuals express in response to any attempt to cast the gay rights movement as one for “civil rights”).

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011


No mistake whatsoever. The particular issue that worked in Arizona did not work in Florida. Arizona and Florida are two very different states. And Maine is a different state still. Any professional campaign should recognize that. My argument wasn’t a proposal of which particular issue the campaign in Maine should focus on, but rather that research needs to be done in order to determine what that issue is.

In every other respects, Maine did everything right. They had a lots of money, they had a massive and impressive grassroots movement, they had involvement of religious leaders, and their ads included gay people. But the election wasn’t about any of that in the end. It was about education.

Mainers can be effected by a lot of things, not just benefits. They could be affected by economic fallout if jobs decide to locate elsewhere. They could be affected by declining communities if people decide Maine is too extreme. Whether these issues register with Mainers or not, I can’t answer. But that question needs to be asked and something found before we go down this road again.

The best illustration of what I’m trying to say can be encapsulated in these two ads coming out at about the same time. The Yes on 1 campaign warned that marriage equality meant 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!”. The No on 1 campaign countered with an ad asking voters to please, pretty please help someone else out. The results were predictable.


July 1st, 2011

sorry, but there isn’t any halfway plausible “big lie” we can tell voters to trick them into doing the right thing.

there’s a hundred ways to make someone afraid of change — not so easy to make them afraid of the status quo. you can’t strategize your way around the need to actually make the case that marriage equality is important. there just isn’t any way to sell it as something else. if you really think there is, please tell Mainers what your specific suggestion is.

btw, what were people voting for in Washington in 2009, if not for abstract equality and fairness?

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011


Thats a pretty gross mischaracterization to claim that I suggest they tell a big lie to trick the voters. Please tell me where you think that is what I said.

As for Washington, we were blessed with the fact that our opponents were so incompetent that THEY became the issue. Washington voters were given a twofer. They could vote for fairness AND against assholes all at the same time. Maine voters (thought) they had to chose between fairness and gays coming after their kids. They voted for their kids. Again, both states prove my point: the issue we want them to vote on needs to be made personal.

But Washington does provide a possibly useful example. Why not make our opponents the issue? Lord knows there’s a lot of material to draw from.

Ben In Oakland

July 1st, 2011

Jim, i could be wrong, but i don’t think those things were tried at all. I saw the two gay guys with kids from the back, but listened to the dad of one of them talk, not them sayuing why marriage was important to them and their kids.

As you say, ads were about being nice to everyone, same as in california.


July 1st, 2011

Jim, why aren’t people afraid of the Christian teachers pushing their fundamentalist agenda on our schoolchildren? Why don’t they see the threat to religious diversity if one group gets to say that ANYONE else’s group is wrong?

Seriously, why isn’t the LGBT leadership learning to fight fire with fire? It was Governor Cuomo, making calls and twisting arms, that negotiated the final votes in New York. Maybe we should call HIM.


July 1st, 2011

What percent advantage do the polls have to show us before we’ve got the guts to stand up for ourselves? 53% may be enough in Maine, but it won’t be enough for the ‘leadership’ in California. They’re far too concerned about their own political futures to take a risk like that one.

The passage of anti-gay laws is in no way our fault. Not our fault at all. Not one little bit. Stop blaming us. Blame those responsible.


July 1st, 2011

Well, I guess in Maine one thing to do would be an ad with that quote where the Yes on 1 guy admits they lied.

Ben In Oakland

July 1st, 2011

Jim– that’s what I meant when I said we have to start talking about bigotry.

Jim Burroway

July 1st, 2011

Hi Ben

I saw your comment and wanted to acknowledge it, but I was answering using a WordPress app on my iPhone, and I can’t see comments at the same time as I’m writing that way. By the time I got to that point, I had forgotten who had mentioned it. Sorry.

I wouldn’t use the word bigotry — bigots don’t think they’re bigots — but you can easily talk about it nonetheless. It’s all about creating discomfort and embarrassment over being aligned with demonstrably hateful people. And no one wants to be thought of that way.


July 1st, 2011

I’m against any ballot item where we voluntarily suggest our rights are something to be voted on. We have to stop playing their game by their rules. And if the H8 forces get something to the ballot play as dirty as they do – stop the fluffy bunny ads and create our own Daisy ads. The way to end this nonsense is to get it to the courts and legislature. We are fools to suggest bringing marriage to the ballot. End this constant bullying we are doing to ourselves by trying to convince voters we are human beings.

F Young

July 1st, 2011

“…why aren’t people afraid of the Christian teachers pushing their fundamentalist agenda on our schoolchildren? Why don’t they see the threat to religious diversity if one group gets to say that ANYONE else’s group is wrong?”

@Kate Yes, I think that is a worthwhile message to test. Something along the lines of:

“Once we start letting powerful churches impose their views on marriage, how long will it be before they start dictating their views on divorce?”

“Do we really want to allow churches to decide whether your civil marriage is valid, and whether you can ever divorce?”

R Watson

July 1st, 2011

This article is right on. We need to tell this story in our future campaigns:
1> Same gender marriages save everyone money. The Congressional budget office showed that marriages give families the ability to take care of each other and not rely on the government.
2> Same gender marriages strengthen the concept of marriage: show a child talk about learning that marriage was important by seeing a classmates parents who got married. That gay families will exist anyway and if they are not married, it sends childrent the message that marriage may not be needed anyway.
3> Stable relationships support everyone. Show the statistics on marriage and mental health. If others are unstable, it adds cost to public assistance
4> Same sex marriage bosters the economy- show all positive stats from wedding booms in places where they have occured.
5> Show kids from families where their parents were able to marry and interview them on the impact–not on why it was good for their parents or right for their parents, but good for them, and their attitude on marriage
6> Feature a recent gay hero, allowed to come out after DADT is gone, who wants to marry his or her brave spouse who held down the home front in secret
7> Support with an education campaign focused on not long ago when marriages were arranged for a variety of reasons, none of them being love. Show how love was the evolveing concept of marriage at the time then, and it is now. “What does love have to do with it?” …

There are a few to start with. I bet there are better ones that make it relevant to the “whats in it for me” voter…

R Watson

July 1st, 2011

I think the issue of religious fundementalism in the schools is compeling too– I would leverage more of the bizarre things religion has tried to impose on dinosaurs on the Ark– and you could even point out that the Bible was used to rationalize that the world is flat.

Steven B

July 2nd, 2011

I think R. Watson has the right idea for those situations where we have to fight a marriage amendment campaign.

F Young

July 2nd, 2011

Another strategy might be to turn the ennemy’s strength into a liability, ie to focus on their secret financing.

“Who is financing the ‘No on 1’ campaign, and why are they keeping it a secret?”

And to counteract the softness of the pro-gay vote:

“Polls show that most people of Maine support marriage equality, but, frankly, your opinion doesn’t count, not unless you vote.”


July 2nd, 2011

1. Make our opponents the issue in ways that appeal to the “it’s all about me” voter:

They’re lying again. Don’t let them play you for a fool.

Stand up to the rich, out-of-state power brokers and their secret donors.

You have to obey the law. Why don’t they?

They’ve ignored the law again and again. Don’t let them get away with it.

What will they ban next? Divorce?

Don’t let them impose their personal religious views on you.

Maggie Gallagher Srivastav wants to make her beliefs the law of the land. But which beliefs is she trying to impose? Mormon? Catholic? Hindu?

2. Go for a two-part law: a) permit couples to marry, regardless of sex, and b) permit some marriage-like benefits for unmarried couples, including straight couples.


July 2nd, 2011

Excellent post, Jim. After I saw that video of Schubert, the missing element in our side’s campaign – the appeal to voter self-interest – became so obvious, I wanted to scream. Appeals to fairness and equality apparently get you to 47-48% in a blue state. If you want 50% plus 1, you need to craft an argument that appeals to voter self-interest. It doesn’t have to be a compelling argument, just plausible. Just as Schubert’s “schools” argument is just barely plausible for the voter who is not considering the matter very deeply.

In Maine, the failure to identify and develop a campaign theme that appealed to voter self-interest is primarily the fault of the outfit hired to do pre-campaign focus groups and polling. That outfit was Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

Schubert got his a-ha moment, but for some reason, we didn’t even though we were paying professionals to steer us in the right direction. Greenberg was also retained by the No on 8 campaign, and there too there was a complete failure to identify and develop a self-interested campaign theme.

We should be watching closely to see if EQME hires Greenberg yet again or if they will go with someone else. That will be a good sign as to how seriously they are taking the lessons of their last defeat.

Timothy Kincaid

July 3rd, 2011

Sorry to be cynical, but people don’t vote for. They vote against.

Give them something to vote against. Point out just how scary it is to let one church dictate law – especially one that molests children.

Point out how scary it is to let policy be decided by haters – especially the God Hates Fags folk.

Make it about THEM. And just like they pulled rare (if even existing) stories to scare the masses, the anti-gays really almost do it for us. I mean we don’t really even need the Phelps’, quotes from Brian Brown are bad enough.

People really want to like themselves. And even more, they want others to like them. Put it in their mind that if they vote against marriage, then they are like these crazy, hateful, evil, insane people. And no one likes a hater.

(or at least keep this idea present in our campaign. Yeah, its the low road… but unlike their smear campaign, ours would at least be an honest portrayal of the leaders of the anti-gay movement. Some of them literally are not mentally fully functioning and some of them really are motivated by purest evil.)


July 4th, 2011

Imho the error in California was to rely on appealing to people’s charity/benefit of the doubt given gay people, which was very pre-2004. Since Massachusetts legalized & the subsequent backlash the benefit of the doubt is no longer given gay people/gay rights.

IOW, Undecideds and Don’t Knows always end up voting for the other side. This kind of strategizing how to push seemingly malleable voters is good fun, but the record seems to be that in the end 95+% of people vote the way they leaned prior to all campaigning.

Greg Hacke

July 5th, 2011


Excellent article, but are the people that need to see it reading it? I hope you send it to some people in leadership positions or at least I hope SOMEONE in the Maine leadership and elsewhere is discussing these same issues.

In a similar vein, I am disgusted by the number of times I will see an article in the gay press (Advocate and BLADE) but they do not not encourage or give their readers any way to get involved. At the least, every story should have contact information for these anti gay politions or companies. I aways try to contact these companies when I can. It works in a positive direction too, I thanked Safeway for firing the checkout counter bitch in DC who called two customers “fucking fags”. I sent a thank you to the Swedish embassy thanking them for being a gold level sponsor of DC Pride(imagine, a foreign country sponsoring the Pride celebration in our nation’s capital)I had to look the contact info up myself for both of them, the gay media was no help. Whenever I post a comment I try to do more than just vent, I provide a web link to a resource or contact info, so people can follow my motto “IT’S BETTER TO LIGHT ONE CANDLE THAN TO CURSE THE DARKNESS . . .THEN THROW SOME GASOLINE ON IT”

I’ll end with a useful and entertaining web resource ” The Cost of Bishop Drag and Bling” Source:$30,000+for+vestments+%28weep%29.pdf

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