Another Thought on the Polling Paradox

Jim Burroway

June 1st, 2012

I want to add another thought to Timothy’s comment here about the gap between polling and vote results on marriage amendments. He raises an excellent point that a good portion of the explanation for the gap — at least as far as how the gap was written about in this particular AP article — ignores the logical fallacy of comparing today’s opinion polls to votes taken four to ten years ago.

And yet we have seen mismatches between what the polls tell us leading up to election days and what finally happens in the voting booth. Let’s take Maine in 2009 as an example. By the end of October, polling showed that those supporting or leaning to support Question 1 was at about 42 percent, while those opposing or leaning to oppose Question 1 were at 52%. But what happened on election day? Question 1 passed 53% to 47%.

The paradox does exist, but I think a lot of people are looking at it wrong. Polls asked about whether people think gay people should be allowed to marry. Because that’s the question polls ask, people are generally inclined to agree that others peoples’ marriages are other peoples’ business.

But as I said before when I expressed my concern that Maine was going to loose despite what the polls said, by the time people go to the voting booth the question isn’t whether gay people should marry or not, but whether their children should be “taught homosexuality” in the schools. That’s a completely different question from what the poll asked. As I said just five days before Maine’s vote:

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

When I said “nobody cares,” I wanted to make the point that the average voter doesn’t care personally about marriage. It is this insight that our opponents have seized on and used to win the day every time. Thirty-two times we have failed to grasp this important lesson, and thirty-two times we have lost because of it. And every time, it was because we failed to grasp the real question that was before voters. Again, as I wrote in 2009 just five days before the vote:

Stand For Marriage Maine’s “positive” feel-good approach didn’t last long. They have a new ad out: …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: …In a nutshell: please help someone else.

What the Yes on 1 folks in Maine did was make it possible to support marriage equality but vote against Question 1 because the changed the question before the voters. A year later, Maine’s campaign manager Marc Mutty made a startling admission on camera that their campaign message was the equivalent of slamming people over the head with “a two-by-four with nails sticking out of it,” adding, ” it’s the only thing we’ve got — it’s the only way. That’s the way campaigns work.”

There’s a popular saying about defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. As a political movement, ours has to be about the most insane of all when it comes to this particular issue. We keep coming up with messages that resonate with us, but which do not connect with the average voter. Until we recognize that nobody deeply cares about same-sex marriage — but they do care about other things which more directly affect them — then we’re going to keep on losing for a very long time.

David in Houston

June 1st, 2012

This is a very good article. But how do you go about stopping those lies about children? I’m guessing you’d have to run ads on TV basically saying that the other side is lying, then refuting what they said. Whether that would be enough to put a damper on a bell that’s already been rung is anyone’s guess.

Priya Lynn

June 1st, 2012

David, it seems to me that that’s something that has to be done. All the lies must be refuted with TV ads and so on.

Jim Burroway

June 1st, 2012

Actually, I think that playing ads that call the other side liars is as bad as fighting a battle on the battleground of your enemy’s choosing. It’s not just playing defense, but defense on a battlefield that is already tilted to your opponents advantage.

So what do we do? I think we need to figure out how to re-define the question in ways that matter to straight people.

The Arizona 2004 example is a good one. Prop 108 would have banned marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, and everything else. The No on 108 group put up ads showing how the ban on domestic partnerships would have affected unmarried straight people, including the state’s very large retiree population. Consequently, Prop 108 remains the ONLY marriage ban to be defeated at the ballot box so far.

Four years later, when Prop 102 banned marriage only, the No group did not put up ads describing how the ban would affect straight people. To be honest, the message that they (we) did put up was very weak. Consequently, Prop 102 passed.

That is the key: How does this ballot measure affect straight people? That’s what we need to figure out. Will it affect your state’s economy? Your state’s reputation? Who is trying to call the shots in your community?

I don’t know which of these (if any) or any other possible avenues might work. But unless we figure out how to make the question personal to the average voter, we will not win.


June 1st, 2012

Unfortunately you have to beat them at their own game.
Nobody ever won a war by giving someone a kindly talking-to while the opponent is screaming their head off and swinging a baseball bat.
Nicely telling someone they’re mean just gets you dead.

Timothy Kincaid

June 1st, 2012

I agree in part. However, I think while we have to talk about how this impacts the voter, we also have to talk about what it is.

When voters go to the polls, they aren’t voting either on the elderly lesbians or on the schoolchildren; they are voting whether Fred can marry Joe.

Nobody, NOBODY, is talking about whether Fred can marry Joe. So in the vacuum they get the choice about whether oooollllldddd lesbians can marry or whether school kids are given sodomy lessons, and guess which one resonates.

Mark F.

June 1st, 2012

I’m inclined to believe that how you run your compaign can lose or gain you a few points, but the fundamentals point to same sex marriage bans finally starting to lose this November. I think Prop 8 would almost certainly lose today even with the same bad campaign.

Nate Silver’s models on this issue have been pretty accurate so far, so he is required reading.

Mark F.

June 1st, 2012

If I arrived from Mars the week before the Prop 8 election, I would never have known it was about same sex marriage by watching the “No on 8” ads, only that the proposition was “unfair.”

Please let’s be straight (no pun intended) with the voters.

Timothy Kincaid

June 1st, 2012

If up to me a campaign would include:

* images of young people who want to marry. This is what “marriage” looks like in movies, in culture, and in the minds of voters.

* examples of how denying gay marriage impacts other people – inconveniencing those you know does impact you. When you have a set of rules, you assume everyone plays by them; denying those rules to some makes it difficult for everyone.

For example, we expect people to have insurance to care for their health care so that we (society) don’t have to. And I think that that answering “well why doesn’t he have health insurance for his partner through work?” with “BECAUSE YOU WON’T LET HIM, YOU IDIOT” can be effective. (okay, maybe not in those words)

* honesty about bigotry. In one generation, it is going to be considered unconscionable bigotry to deny equality to gay people. Most people know that on some level. I think that reminding them that their kids will think they are bigots is not only true but fair game.

Anti-gays use kids. I think we should too. I can imagine an ad in which a teenage turns from his schoolbook and says “Dad, wow, back in 2012 that they voted on whether to make gay people unequal? But you didn’t vote for discrimination, did you, Dad? You supported equality, right? Right? Dad?”

* a reminder that NO it’s not okay. It’s not “a difference of opinion”.

I would have an ad with some obnoxious young woman at some social gathering saying “oh, my gay friends know I disagree with them about marriage. They respect me anyway. We agree to disagree.” and having the party stop and the host say, “No, I didn’t know that. I’m sorry, Susan, but if you think that I’m inferior to you, then we can’t be friends.” Susan: “But, but, we can disagree.” Host: “No, we can disagree about taxes or foreign policy or even politicians but we can’t ‘disagree’ over whether I have the same rights as you. I think you should go.”

Michael K

June 1st, 2012

They may win in the voting booth but they have to lie to do it. The only way to combat the lie is to face it head on. Our children, our families should be in every add. We must find the adult children GLBTs have raised and put them front and center. The couples raising the discarded special needs children adopted in loving homes fighting against all odds to have a family. The couples raising biological children in partnership with their ex-husband/wife. You know the real us!
Our adds should say “Our 18 year old child can marry any time he/she wants but we his/her parents together 20 years are barred from doing so.”
We will not win playing nice trying to get others to represent the real lives, real families and our real truths. We need to represent Our True Selves and our Real Truths or we will continue to let them define who and what we are and what we want and we will continue to loose to their lies about us.

Michael K

June 1st, 2012

Our main add should be an out line of the United States and our children (young and adult) should pop up representing where they live on the map stating “I am” “I am” ” I am” on and on until the map fills up and then in unison they should continue ” I am a member of a family treated less than, discriminated by our government, scapegoated and denied equal treatment and access. We are American Citizens and Our families deserve equal treatment!”

That is how we win this battle.


June 1st, 2012

That’s the very reason plebiscites about civil rights are a bad idea. Most of them are against something and those people are always more motivated. That’s a problem in any kind of referendum, but makes ones about people’s rights even more immoral.


June 1st, 2012

Excellent article Jim and EXCELLENT comment in response Timothy!

You guys are firing on all cylinders today!

If only we could get the attention of those who run these campaigns.

Richard Rush

June 1st, 2012

This is a cut/paste of a comment I wrote about a year ago here at BTB, but it’s relevant to this post.


Our side never seems to articulate how full equality, including same-sex marriage will benefit everyone. Without that education, there is no self-interest motive for voters to support us. Whenever the marriage issue surfaces in a state, the NOM crusaders create an undercurrent of fear that children could possibly be taught to be gay, and then it’s all over: People vote against us because there are zero perceived positives in it for them, but there is the fear of possible negatives. Our appeals to senses of equality, fairness, and compassion are a difficult sell against fear. While people may be accepting of gay people in general, I think the vast majority still want their own children to be straight.

People need to be educated on how children cannot be taught to be gay, how attempts to suppress gayness in a child only leads to a damaged life (and a damaged family), and how full acceptance and equality greatly reduce the possibility of their own son or daughter being deluded into a marriage destined to be dysfunctional because the spouse has hidden sexuality issues.

And people need to know that being deluded into a marriage with hidden sexuality issues is not just a possibility so remote that it’s not worth worrying about. It has been one of the constant sources of dysfunctional marriages throughout history. My own anecdotal observations of people I know and hear about tell me that these marriages have been far more numerous than I could have ever imagined when I was younger. The people I know and hear about include those who have walked away from their faux-straight marriages after many years, and those still married while actively seeking/engaging in homosex on the side.

I would like to ask every parent with children some questions: Would you want your son or daughter to marry someone who is in denial about their homosexuality? Would it not be better for society to encourage marriage between people who are actually suited to each other on such a fundamental issue as sexuality? Or do you believe, as our “pro-family” opponents apparently do, that we should continue to encourage deceptive marriages because they represent a higher level of morality than homosexual relationships? Here is a story about this issue:

As the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage in the District [of Columbia] grows louder and more polarized, there are people whose support for the proposal is personal but not often talked about. They are federal workers and professionals, men and women who share little except that their former spouses tried to live as heterosexuals but at some point realized they could not.

Many of these former spouses — from those who still feel raw resentment toward their exes to those who have reached a mutual understanding — see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward protecting not only homosexuals but also heterosexuals. If homosexuality was more accepted, they say, they might have been spared doomed marriages followed by years of self-doubt.

. . . and the story goes on.


June 1st, 2012

First you have to disprove their statements with real data.

I’m tired of emotivism being used in politics.

Second – the more people that know about us the less chance of them voting for horrid amendments like that.


June 1st, 2012

Compare you example of Arizona with NC. Similarly extreme situation, and the anti-amendment coalition focused on how the broad language of the amendment could hurt straight couples. It wasn’t enough. In fact, our opponents did exactly what you say we shouldn’t, they called us liars. I think time would have been an ally in this case, but clearly telling straight people how they could be hurt by it wasn’t sufficient.

I do like your more emotional punches, especially the ones about future generations and ‘agreeing-to-disagree’ friends. On the later, I would probably go more in the direction of “Yeah, we can disagree about this privately, but you are taking your opinion to the polls and using it to actually hurt me.”


June 1st, 2012

You have to have an impact in a 20-second campaign spot, have a message that fits in a sentence.

And I’m sorry, but it’s fair to run ads about shadowy groups and individuals trying to call the shots in your community…because these things ARE run by shadowy groups like NOM, who report to their rich, out-of-touch funders like John Templeton, Jr., and Doug Manchester on their progress at keeping Hispanics from assimilating and manipulating black voters. *Black, white, hispanic, straight, and gay–they’re spending millions of dollars to splinter our communities in order to achieve their secret plan to change the culture.*

F Young

June 1st, 2012

“Until we recognize that nobody deeply cares about same-sex marriage — but they do care about other things which more directly affect them — then we’re going to keep on losing for a very long time.”

I agree that Maine in 2009 shows that the Bradley effect cannot simply be explained by the time discrepancy between opinion polls and voting. There was no time discrepancy in Maine.

Yet, the approach you advocate here is exactly what the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families did, focusing on how the amendment would harm unmarried people, both gay and straight, and their children, and yet they still lost.

I think in North Carolina it was partly due to non-Republicans not bothering to vote since there was no Democratic primary.

Lack of money for TV buys was a big factor too; the advance voting had already started by the time the first anti-amendments TV ads appeared.

It is interesting that there was a big urban/rural divide, possibly due to rural people having never personally met any gays. There was apparently a big effort to get gays to speak to their acquaintances, but it may have worked only in urban areas.

Dave H

June 1st, 2012

Our side tries to persuade voters with facts and reason; their side tries to persuade voters with appeals to emotion and fear. Emotion and fear will win every time. People vote based on how they feel about something, then they selectively accept the facts that will support their position.

It all boils down to “gays are sinful and icky – and I don’t want my kids to be taught about TEH GAY, much less become one.”

Also, as our side tries to appeal to people’s logic and fairness, we strive to be truthful and take the high road. Well guess what? That doesn’t work either. THERE IS NO PENALTY FOR LYING AND CHEATING. That’s why the other side does it. It works. Even if they get caught later (like NOM routinely violating campaign finance laws), it doesn’t invalidate the results of the election.

As much as we would like to appeal to people using facts and fairness, it won’t work – we have to appeal to their emotions, even if that emotion is fear. As much as we would like to play clean, the other side is playing dirty. We need to do what it takes to win. The nice guys really do finish last in this case.

Priya Lynn

June 1st, 2012

Jim said “Actually, I think that playing ads that call the other side liars is as bad as fighting a battle on the battleground of your enemy’s choosing. It’s not just playing defense, but defense on a battlefield that is already tilted to your opponents advantage… Until we recognize that nobody deeply cares about same-sex marriage — but they do care about other things which more directly affect them — then we’re going to keep on losing for a very long time.”.

To the best of my knowledge no one has tried running ads refuting the lies of the other side and as you’ve said, they beat the good guys up with how it would allegedly badly effect straights. By refuting those ads (and you’re damn right, calling them the liars they are) we take away their ability to convince straights this affects them in a negative way. Just sitting back and letting them lie like they have every time let’s those ads work to create unjustified fear. We have to debunk that fear, not ignore it.

As F Young said, running ads that say the amendment will negatively affect straight voters was an abject failure in North Carolina because its a tough sell to straights to convince them a ban on same sex marriage hurts them, but they were open to the lies that gays marrying would be a bad thing. Much easier to counter the lies that gays marrying is a bad thing than to try and convince straights gays not marrying hurts them.


June 1st, 2012

I agree with most of this, i.e. no running campaigns from within the closet, not accepting distracting issues as germane, etc.

Having said that, I think the analysis of the electorate is incorrect. Models until recently were very clear: there is a big chunk of Americans that will say so and will vote to support gay marriage legalization, and it’s at 44% now and grows 1% per year nationally. The chunk of people who will say so and vote against gml is about the same size, in the mid-forties nationally but shrinking slightly over time.

It used to be that polling showed about 8-10% of the electorate saying they support legalizing civil unions but would not vote to legalize equal marriage. Pollsters have stopped polling for this view/option as civil unions have lost their legitimacy and stopped being an option to state legislators. And since then the proportion of voters who claim to emotionally support equal marriage when asked has gone up just about 8-10%. But in the voting booth these 8-10% turn up on the against side.

This year a state that is about 6-7% more liberal (i.e. Democratic) voting than national average would narrowly pass referendums to legalize equal marriage. The trouble is, the states where it’s an issue and voted upon this year are mostly only 3-4% more Democratic voting than the national average.

North Carolina is 3-6% less Democratic voting than national average. Add 6-7% to that number and you get an expected performance of 9-13% shortfall from prevailing of the pro-marriage side. And fall short by 9-10% is exactly what happened.

There is a lot of hope that these 8-10% can in fact be persuaded to vote for legalization. But in campaign after campaign, they always say so in the beginning. But when pushed hard psychologically by the anti side, by all the ugly stuff we know so well, so far they have always siding anti when in the polling booth. Personally, I believe it’s hopeless because as the tipping point nears demographically, the worse the hysteria from the Right which this group of voters seems incapable of resisting successfully. But maybe someone can find some angle that does work.


June 1st, 2012

Jim, I almost always agree with you, but in this case I’m not so sure. As Nathanial and F Young pointed out, this strategy failed in North Carolina.

I do think we have to confront the fearful notion that “the schools will teach homo-sexuality!” But we can’t do it by *denying* that kids in schools may become more aware of the reality that some families are headed by same-sex couples. Schools SHOULD be acknowledging the existence and legitimacy of those families (even if the parents cannot yet be legally married) because the children of those families are there in the schools!

And—schools should also be acknowledging the existence and legitimacy of those families because GAY KIDS are there in the schools, growing up and trying to imagine a future for themselves. We need to show that it is RIGHT for kids in school to grow up accepting gay families. It’s important to the well-being of the children of gay parents, to gay kids themselves, and to straight kids whose parents don’t want them to grow up to be homophobes or bullies.

Part of what our opponents appeal to when they change the question to “do you want them to teach your child homosexuality?!” is parents’ assumption that their own children are or will be heterosexual. They are not thinking about what it would be like for their child if that child happened to be LGBT or Q, and was stuck in a school where it was forbidden to acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of gay families.

So yes, we do need to show straight folks how recognizing same-sex marriages will affect them for the better, but perhaps by reminding them not only about the adult couples they might know but also by making them think about the LGBT kids they might have. Kids like mine. Believe me, it makes we wonder how on earth it could be a bad thing for the schools to “teach” acceptance of “homosexuality.” It could only be good for my kids.

Mark F.

June 1st, 2012

“As Nathanial and F Young pointed out, this strategy failed in North Carolina.”

I think the current demographics of NC made this a lost cause. The state is more conservative than the national average.

We’ll see what happens in the more liberal states that will vote on marriage this year–we could win in all of them.


June 1st, 2012

I think Meadowlark is getting this right – we need parents to recognize that there are gay kids out there, and some of those kids might be their own, and would they want their kids, who might be gay (and maybe don’t even know it yet) to grow up with this societal condemnation hanging over them? This societal condemnation is one of the biggest reasons that coming out is so hard.

Do parents really want to put their own kids through this?

Jim Burroway

June 2nd, 2012

North Carolina is not a good test case.. The way the election was set up in the primary instead of the general virtually guaranteed that a very small and highly motivated number of voters in a very socially conservative state would decide its outcome.

I didn’t see any polling to show that we had a strong chance to defeat amendment 1 among likely primary voters.

Maine, on the other hand — and California — are almost perfect examples of what I’m talking about. Polls in both states showed marriage bans going down in defeat. And what did our opponents do? They changed the question in the minds of voters who were otherwise okay with gay people getting married. Our opponents gave those voters something else to think about, something that hit much closer to home. Something much more personal.

We have never figured out to do that. We have never answered the question, “How does this affect ME?” and telling them that it doesn’t isnt good enough.

People vote for lower taxes thinking that will magically pave their roads and build their schools. They vote for easy answers and free ice cream. Until we can give them a reason to vote our way for something that benefits THEM, the other side will continue to give voters very personal reasons to vote against us.

We had 32 lessons so far showing that this is how elections work. We may not like it. It may offend our sensibilities about how a well informed electorate is supposed to behave in an election. But this is the real world, and I’m tired of having my sensitivities offended by more defeats.

I predicted Maine’s defeat when I saw the last round of ads, and that was when the most recent polls still showed our side having a nearly 10 point advantage. I could see that coming despite not being the brightest bulb in the tree. It doesn’t take rocket science to see the problem, although it will take people far more creative than me to come up with a solution. But the first step must begin with paying a little bit of attention to what’s been happening and why.

Timothy Kincaid

June 3rd, 2012


I don’t think the polls showed Prop 8 going down in flames.

What it showed was 48% voting no and a smaller percent voting yes. We assumed that we would split the “I don’t know”s.

All th I don’t knows voted yes and 48% voted no just as polled.

If you look back on the votes, that’s pretty consistent. We get the percent who told pollsters they were for us and all of the I don’t knows went to the other side. Anti-gay is the default position.

It’s not exact science every time, but it proved to be true often enough that I tend to use it in my assumptions


June 2nd, 2012

The PPP poll in Maine just 2/3 days before the election in 2009 actually showed Question 1 being approved by 51% to 47%, nearly identical to the actual results.


June 2nd, 2012

So what’s the solution, Jim? The truth is, there is no benefit for straight people to vote for marriage equality, other than a general feeling of doing the right thing. How can we possibly convince them that there’s something in it for them, when there plainly isn’t? And of course the other side lies and says they’ll be hurt somehow if marriage equality passes. I don’t think “your hypothetical kids might grow up gay” is going to be very effective.

Secret Advocate

June 2nd, 2012

I fully agree with what so many others have said. Our side in these marriage equality campaigns has been doing it all wrong.

In brief, our side’s main strategies have been: (1) to demand that straight people come up with a reason why gay couples should be denied the right to marry; and (2) to make vague appeals against “discrimination” and in favor of “personal freedom.”

But that’s just not going to cut it. Straight people don’t need a reason to vote against marriage equality. Man-woman marriage is the status quo. It has been the status quo for a long time. Straight people have seen social changes in the past that have, in their view, produced results that they don’t like, and a lot of them, when pressed, are just not comfortable with what they perceive as fooling around with the holiest social institution of them all — marriage.

As for airy appeals against “discrimination,” they are meaningless to much of the general public, because they don’t show WHY there should be no discrimination in this context. It is a fact that there exists perfectly valid “discrimination.” Universities don’t give athletic scholarships to unathletic people, for example.

Appeals for “personal freedom” are useless. The other side easily rebuts them by saying that the marriage issue is not about telling people what to do.

Instead, our side has to come up with a totally new strategy based upon this fundamental principle: We have to show affirmatively how marriage equality BENEFITS society, and, in particular, how it would benefit the viewers of the commercials themselves. Otherwise, we’re sunk, again.

Commercials featuring nice lesbians are not enough. As Richard Rush so brilliantly stated here, “Whenever the marriage issue surfaces in a state, the NOM crusaders create an undercurrent of fear that children could possibly be taught to be gay, and then it’s all over: People vote against us because there are zero perceived positives in it for them, but there is the fear of possible negatives.”

Human beings have in their brains a primitive “reptile” brain. It is a chemical center which was among the earliest parts of the human brain that developed in the history of the species. The purpose of the reptilian brain is to protect us and our families from harm, so that our genes will be passed on. Creatures in the past that did not develop this feature are not here, because they were eaten by the animals or fell off a cliff or were done in by some other calamity, and their genes were not passed on.

The higher ordered parts of the human brain act as a logical filter for the signals from the reptilian brain, but the signals from the reptilian brain are very strong. Only if the signals are totally illogical is there a chance that the higher ordered parts will disregard them.

And, what was a textbook example of an appeal to the reptilian brain? It was the pro-Proposition 8 campaign in California.

Give credit were credit is due, as Frank Schubert & Co. played it almost perfectly. They came up with the strategy based on the principle of saying to John and Jane Citizen of California: This is how gay marriage will hurt YOU and your family. Your kids in public schools will be taught that being gay is OK and they might therefore become gay. Businesses will get sued for the personal beliefs of their owners, and that will affect you with higher prices and insurance rates. Your church could lose its tax exemption and may have to shut down.

But the big one was the “your kids could be turned gay” one. Our side has a special disadvantage in this regard. Homosexuality, because it involves reproduction, goes right to the sweet spot of the reptilian brain (which, again, takes action so that our genes will be passed on).

It is a sad but true reality that even the most liberal, open-minded, and empathetic straight people out there will turn on their LGBT neighbors if they think that doing so is needed to prevent their kids from catching “The Gay.” Intellectually, they may know that it’s nonsense. But the signals that are coming from their reptile brains (“Grandchildren! Grandchildren! You want grandchildren!”) are just too strong.

So, how do we shift the debate and show people how marriage equality benefits THEM? I suggest four broad areas: (1) stopping promiscuity among gay men, which is a public health issue; (2) helping the children who are being raised by gay families; (3) stopping sham marriages, with all of the societal costs that they impose; and (4) improving the happiness of the LGBT community, thus benefiting the public because happier people work better, study better, and have fewer health problems.

As for the first point, anyone who was around in the 1980’s knows that limiting promiscuity among gay men is a matter of public health.

As for the children of gay parents, this co-opts the point that the other side hammers so much. Ben in Oakland, in his comment in another thread here, said a brilliant line that could be a slogan of a commercial: “Opposing marriage equality is tantamount to punishing these children.”

The sham marriages point could be a decisive one, because it also sends the reptilian brain into overdrive. For too long, gay people have been pushed into sham marriages with straight people because of internal, familial, or societal pressures. These marriages then implode, and impose costs on society — wasted time, hurt feelings, counseling bills, and divorce attorney fees.

I can foresee a commercial that asks the viewers point-blank: Would you want your straight son or straight daughter to marry a gay person? (Activate reptile brain.)

The commercial could begin by saying, “The opponents of marriage equality for gay people say that gay people can get married; they just have to marry someone of the opposite sex. But that’s exactly the problem.” (This would take that canard away from the other side.) The commercial would point out the societal costs of sham marriages, and then ask the above question. It would conclude with a call to stop sham marriages by voting for marriage equality.

As for the fourth point — improving the happiness of the community — I know that there can be some eye-rolling, but I think that it’s valid. As I said before, happier people work better, study better, and have fewer health problems. These help society, and thus their promotion is in the public interest.

Those are my suggestions. Personally, I don’t think that a commercial saying, “Your kids might turn out to be gay,” would change matters. People’s reptilian brains create a psychological blocking mechanism to such thoughts.

But I can foresee such an idea being in a commercial that addresses the education issue, which will obviously rear up in every campaign (it has in every campaign since Anita Bryant in 1977). Our side must address the education issue head-on. We could say that the marriage laws do not address school curricula, and do not require age-inappropriate material. At the same time, we want children to be taught to treat others with dignity and with respect. The problem of bullying could be cited here. The commercial could say that your child could be gay, and should be in a safe environment.

The strategy that succeeded in Arizona in 2006 — ignoring the homosexuality issue and instead focusing on how bans on “domestic partnerships” would affect straight couples — is of limited usefulness. In the plebiscites in November of this year, only marriage is at issue. Moreover, the strategy did not work in Arizona in 2008, in Florida in 2008, or in North Carolina last month. I also didn’t think that the ads in North Carolina were all that persuasive anyway. If polling showed that North Carolinians were likely to vote against Amendment One if they knew that it banned civil unions, then why didn’t our side run a commercial saying that it banned civil unions? I think that they wanted to hide the homosexuality issue, which was silly because the voters already knew that homosexuality was central to the matter. (I should note that I don’t believe that North Carolina was winnable in any event.)

The political types may say that my proposals wouldn’t work because they “don’t test well” — i.e., in the focus groups. The problem, however, is that whatever our side has been doing in the past simply has not worked. It’s time to rip up the playbook and try something new. We couldn’t do any worse.

Steve Jobs did not become successful by following focus groups. He came up with his own ideas and led the consumers to them. Our side has to do the same. We can’t just follow the focus groups. Sometimes, we have to lead the public by educating them.

Shortly after Proposition 8 was passed in 2008, there was a comment on the IMDb Politics board that I still remember today, because it was so telling as to the problems that we face. The poster, who said that he was from Arkansas, was responding to a claim that opponents of gay marriage were “bigots.” He said the following:

“Here’s the deal. You need my vote. I don’t need your marriage license. Insult me and I’ll vote against you every time.”

On so many levels, that encapsulates our problems. People see themselves as having the power (which they do as voters). And they don’t see how marriage equality helps them (“I don’t need your marriage license.”). The last sentence even indicates that he was leaning against marriage equality anyway.

We have to change those attitudes.

One final thing: Our side’s commercials can’t hide the gay people and their children. If you implicitly treat homosexuality as something that must be hidden away and not discussed, then you are working against the very message that you are trying to send.

Thanks for reading to the end.

Donny D.

June 2nd, 2012

Whatever a successful pro-same sex marriage campaign would look like, it would have reach the “movable middle”, those straight people who aren’t totally against us but who aren’t totally for us, either. The messaging for that kind of campaign would necessarily be something LGB people won’t be happy with, because it would appeal to sentiments in straight people that we don’t like, and that many of us pretend aren’t widespread.

My questions, instead, are on the vetting process. Who in our community decides who will be running these campaigns? My guess is that in the larger states it’s a bunch of affluent or wealthy white male A-gays who either think they are smart enough to do it themselves, or nepotistically throw the contracts for the campaign to other people in their immediate social milieu. Someone commenting somewhere said that we needed leaders who would be smart enough to hire a gay Frank Schubert. Instead, we need LGB leaders smart and dispassionate enough to hire the campaigns professional, straight or LGBT, who will be able to reach that middle group of straight people.

One additional thing is that we need leaders who try to reach all parts of their state’s body politic, rather than ignoring it’s people of color until things start looking bad close to election day, as happened here in California.


June 2nd, 2012

I do agree that we have to somehow address the question, “What’s in it for ME?” where “me” is a straight person who “doesn’t need *your* marriage license.” But maybe part of what I’m getting at is that we need to address that question in a way that helps break down (rather than sustain) the assumed separation of gay and straight into opposing groups with different interests. I suppose what I’m imagining is an emotional appeal, or an appeal to the reptilian brain, that helps move the “them” into the “us” category.

And so I agree with Secret Advocate’s final point that we can’t treat homosexuality as something to be hidden; we can’t appear to be saying, “don’t look at gay people! look over there at some other reason to support marriage equality!” Instead, I can imagine loads of ads that show families, families, families in positive and ordinary ways: families with gay parents, families with straight parents and gay kids, devoted elderly gay couples, young gay couples reunited after military service, gay couples announcing their engagement at the family table at Thanksgiving, middle-aged straight parents tearing up at their gay child’s wedding, gay teens and their straight friends hanging out at somebody’s home, devoutly Catholic grandparents talking about how proud they are of their gay grandkids, gay families singing or praying in church. Happy and ordinary scenes.

I know this sounds idealistic and it is definitely emotional, but the hardheaded analysis behind this idea is that there is something fundamental that has to be shifted before (straight) people will vote for our interests. What has to be shifted is the perception of LGBT people as strange and dangerous, not like “us” (straight people). This perception operates at the level of assumption, mostly not conscious or at all logical, and it is not particularly susceptible to logical argument.

The anti-gay folks are working tirelessly to keep that perception in place, and sometimes that works in our favor, as they end up exposing the ugliness and danger of the assumptions people have not bothered to examine in themselves. But I don’t think it will work for us to be the ones to take on those ugly assumptions directly and label them “bigotry.” People then indignantly insist that they don’t think that way because they’re definitely not bigots, and that indignation makes it impossible to change their assumptions. Instead, we need to offer an alternative, so persistently that it begins to seem ordinary.

This is a way of repeating the process that occurs in so many families, schools, churches, workplaces when LGBT people come out, or are known to be gay but are mostly known as co-worker, grandchild, sister, parent, student, committee member, and so on. My two gay teenagers have straight friends, teachers, grandparents (devoutly Catholic), cousins (fiercely Republican), and of course their parents, who would go to the wall for them–and many of those people would previously have voted casually against marriage equality with hardly a thought, with a “but of course” feeling. It’s this kind of shift we have to try to reproduce in a marriage equality campaign.

Or so I think, anyway . . . sorry for the long post. I am trying to work this out and articulate it for myself, as well, because those defeats hurt so much. I want there to be a solution, for the sake of my kids and everyone else in the LGBT community (which, for me, is now “we”).

Timothy Kincaid

June 3rd, 2012

I have one more suggestion, something that would drive our community nuts to do.

I want a marriage ad featuring Dick Cheney and Laura Bush.

Or here’s a ballsy idea. In Minnesota it bans civil unions as well. Has anyone called Rush Limbaugh and asked him to stand behind his words?

I GUARANTEE that if there were an ad playing on radio in which Limbaugh opposed the amendment because it goes too far, it would lose.


June 2nd, 2012

After reading the comments here, I am beginning to think we lost NC because we expected to lose NC. We have to defeat the defeatist attitude in ourselves before we can win. I, of course, talked to my family (at least, my nuclear family). My conservative minister father still voted against me and my partner. So it is clear to me why we believed we would lose NC. But it is also clear to me how the defeatist attitude hurt our own efforts. I will agree that in the end, we probably weren’t open enough about ‘the gay’ issue, which was the sole focus of our opponents. Meanwhile, California and Maine have the results of history to point to if they wish to persuade voters to support marriage equality. I only hope Washington, Maryland and Wisconsin have more than “it won’t hurt anybody” up their sleeves, along with a strong dose of “We CAN win this!” attitude to bolster their efforts.

Ben In Oakland

June 2nd, 2012

We’re havingh this same discussion right here:

C’mon over and get your feet wet.

Mark F.

June 2nd, 2012

I think we will start winning this year, not because of good or bad political campaigns, but because people are becoming more favorable towards gay people for whatever reason.


June 2nd, 2012

I’m afraid, in the end, this is going to have to go the path of civil rights in the 60’s, with more enlightened action by government and the judiciary forcing the question – and the answer – and undoing the nonsense of “human rights by ballot box” of the past 10 years. Fortunately, we DO see that going forward already. Sadly, I think general public perception will only catch up afterward when people look back and see their fears were unjustified. We can help the public empathy process, but it is not the way to win our rights. Humans think and act primally, and are extremely slow to unlearn deeply rooted cultural biases.

Secret Advocate

June 2nd, 2012

In line with what Donny D. said, there is a saying that I’ve seen with respect to presidential campaigns, but I think that it also applies here: Elections are won between the 40-yard lines. There are large chunks of the population who simply are never going to be “persuaded” to vote for Barack Obama or for Mitt Romney. The goal of the respective campaigns is peel off enough people in “the middle” (nowadays, it could even be between the 45-yard lines) to get to 270 electoral votes.

Our side, for the time being, has to do a similar thing. We all know that there are people out there who simply will never be “persuaded” to vote for marriage equality. Nathaniel’s experience illustrates that. Here is another example of someone in North Carolina who simply is not going to be persuaded:

Our side can obviously (and easily) point out the flaws in what he is “arguing,” but that would be for the benefit of other people, the ones who can be persuaded.

Could we have won in North Carolina? I don’t know. I always doubted it, but maybe that was my own reptilian brain at work. I didn’t want to get hurt again, so my brain set itself up at the starting point of assuming that we would lose.

To respond to Donny D.’s question, I don’t know specifically how the political consultants are selected. The established LGBT groups on the marriage issue in each state (usually with the word “Equality” in their names) supposedly take the lead on this.

I recognize that our side has a significant learning curve, because we actually have little experience with truly contested elections on the marriage issue. In the vast majority of the plebiscites in the past 10 years or so, our side was expected to lose handily, and that prevented the raising of the money that is the lifeblood of a successful political campaign, or even the creation of a serious campaign in the first place.

That said, while I respected and admired the energy, the enthusiasm, and the good intentions of the No-on-1 campaign in North Carolina, my concern is that they were led down the wrong path by their political consultants or by their own well-intentioned but flawed strategy.

I saw what they were trying to do. They were trying to re-capture the lightning in a bottle that our side caught in Arizona in 2006. The problem, beyond the difficulties faced in a Southeastern state, was that the method was flawed.

First, I didn’t think that the “Amendment One could affect our domestic violence laws” argument was all that persausive, either from a legal perspective or in the commercials that ran. The commercials didn’t really explain why the amendment would affect the domestic violence laws. I would have liked to have seen a commercial that actually QUOTED the amendment — including the phrase “domestic legal union” — with the word “domestic” then morphing into a line about the amendment’s hurting the “domestic” violence laws.

The other commercial that the No-on-1 campaign ran was, I’m sorry to say, well-intentioned but not effective. It featured a young woman, obviously stressed, who was concerned that the amendment would cause her daughter to lose her health insurance:

The amendment did not say the type of relationship in which the woman was, other than to say “we’re unmarried” (with respect to her never-seen significant other). Here, again, they were hiding the homosexuality factor and making it look shameful, thus counteracting their own purposes. Also, the commercial did not explain HOW the amendment would affect her daughter’s health insurance. Therefore, to John and Jane Citizen of North Carolina, it was pretty much useless.

As I said before, if polling showed that North Carolinians were more likely to vote against Amendment One if they knew that it banned civil unions and domestic partnership laws, then why not have a commercial saying that Amendment One would ban civil unions and domestic partnership laws?

Don’t worry about losing the conservative types; you’re not going to get many of their votes anyway. The other side in North Carolina never made any bones about the basis for its campaign. Their commercials featured a book with the “Holy Bible” imprint and spoke what God intended.

This November, our side will have four more opportunities, and these ones do indeed have the potential for success. As Mark F. said, changing societal attitudes toward LGBT people will help us, with polls showing that young people support marriage equality in significantly larger proportions than their elders.

But we can’t just rely on that. The other side could still “reptile” us again. A lot of those young people either have, or will eventually have, children. Their reptilian brains could look at their kids playing and cause them to think, “I just can’t do it. Children are very impressionable. How will gay marriage affect them? I don’t know, so I can’t take that chance.”

That’s the problem that we will continue to face. LGBT people have been waiting for 40 years for “the next generation” to ride to our rescue. There are indeed been substantial changes. (I think that it’s great that we’re even talking about this issue now. It was unthinkable 25 years ago.) There will continue to be substantial changes because, as Charles said, people will see the lack of negative consequences in the jurisdictions that have marriage equality.

But we can’t just rely on waiting for the older generation to die off. Recently here at Box Turtle Bulletin, a writer quoted a poster at another forum who said that he had been an LGBT rights activist since the 1960’s. The poster said, “If you’re waiting for the homophobes to die, you’re waiting for me to die.”

Our side has to take the right actions in the right way to get the right results. Otherwise, we could still face the catcalls from the other side that we win polls and lose elections.

This November could have mixed results, it could be a clean sweep in our favor, or it could be a clean sweep against us.

Meadowlark’s idea of featuring happy and ordinary scenes involving gay people is a good one, but it has to be as a part of an overall strategy of conveying to the public how marriage equality helps THEM.

*Limiting promiscuity among gay men, which is a public health issue in which the public has an interest;
*Helping the children who are being raised by gay parents;
*Stopping sham marriages and all of the costs that they impose on the community and on the parties themselves (which could be your own son or your own daughter);
*Improving the health and happiness of gay people and their families, thus impoving the overall productivity and health of the community and reducing the costs imposed on society by the lack of health and productivity.

The “I don’t need your marriage license” attitude of much of the public is the quicksand on which our campaigns are now sitting, unfortunately. We are marketing a product, and, as in all marketing, we have to convince the consumers to buy it.

And, finally, as Donny D. said, our side cannot make the mistake again of ignoring minority communities. The other side isn’t.


June 2nd, 2012

How about embracing what people already fear about us and turning it to our advantage? From shirtless leatherman to gay go-go boys to lesbian softballers, to gay cruisegoers, grab pictures of obviously gay couples–even stereotypically gay couples–Focus in on one of the pair with the test: “Would you want him to marry your daughter? Then let him marry his boyfriend instead. Support marriage equality.” or “Would you want her to marry your son? Then let her marry his girlfriend instead. Support marriage equality.”

Secret Advocate

June 2nd, 2012

Good idea, chiMaxx.

A suggestion that I would make is include in your proposed ad an introduction along the lines of what I said earlier: “The opponents of marriage equality say that gay people can get married; they just have to marry someone of the opposite sex. But that’s exactly the problem.”

The reason: Without that introduction, the other side (and the viewers) could simply shift the blame to the gay people shown in the ad and say, “Of course, they shouldn’t marry my son or my daughter.”

Adding the “hook” that I propose would show that we are simply tracking the other side’s own argument, and would shift the blame back to them.

Here’s another idea for a commercial, intended to activate the “reptile” brain:

The theme of the ad would be “It’s us today. It could be you tomorrow.” If this era’s disfavored minority’s rights can be subject to a public vote, who’s next? The idea comes from the famous free-verse poem “First they came,” attributed to German pastor Martin Niemöller:

The line comes from Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s speech to the League of Nations as the League (and the United States as well) made an ineffectual response to Mussolini’s invasion and conquest of his country (“It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”).

The ad would show a series of gay people, saying comments along the lines of:

“Gay people are the ones whose rights are being voted on today. Who’s next?

“It’s us today. It could be you tomorrow.

“What kind of precedent does this set for the people of [insert state name]?

“It’s us today. It could be you tomorrow.

“People are watching. If someone’s rights can be the subject of a popular vote, then whose rights are safe?

“It’s us today. It could be you tomorrow.

“Whose rights are next?

“It’s us today. It could be you tomorrow.

“Vote for marriage equality. Vote [in the requested manner, i.e., for or against the referendum question].”

The demographics of the country are changing, and this ad could get people thinking about what could happen — to THEM — if civil rights can be made subject to the vagaries of popular opinion.


June 3rd, 2012

You tech jockeys could easily start assembling such messages easily. I am surprised they aren’t already on YouTube. If we want to influence those who lead ‘our side’, then we must simply show them what we think would work, and demonstrate their effectiveness on such ‘open markets’ as YouTube.

SA, you seem to have good ideas that really take aim at the heart of the anti-gay’s fears (no matter how imagined they are). The promiscuity issue has particularly struck me, as it has many of you, as being circular logic. Yet, my reasoning it out with somebody isn’t going to help. They need it disputed quickly, simply and graphically.

While you make a good point about ‘the next generation’, I would dispute that to some degree. Never before have gay people, even same-sex couples, been as welcomed into the lives around them. My partner and I have had the privilege of sharing meals with many young couples, most of whom have young children. In front of these families, we have been able to show displays of affection like those any straight couple might engage in without thought. If we, as friends of these people, can do so, why should they then be threatened by the strangers on whose rights they are being asked to vote? Our strongest campaign is our love and commitment to our partners, or our expressions of yearning for such a relationship.

Secret Advocate

June 4th, 2012


Thanks. I’m actually not all that great with technology. However, if anyone out there wants to incorporate my ideas into a YouTube video or a commercial, go right ahead. I assert no ownership rights in them.

As for your second point, Harvey Milk was so right when he said that, if people know us, they are less likely to vote against us.


As late as mid-September of 2008, polls had Proposition 8 trailing by substantial margins. The respected Field Poll had it trailing by 17 percentage points.

But it’s my understanding (I’m not a Californian) that, in late September of 2008, the Yes-on-8 campaign began running its TV commercials. It started with the “Whether You Like It or Not” ad (featuring Gavin Newsom’s cringe-worthy sound bite). Then, starting in early October, it began running its “King and King” ad — the one with the young girl telling her horrified mother that in school she had read “King and King” and was told that someday she could marry a princess.

Our side’s numbers then crashed.

After the No-on-8 campaign began running its response ads, the numbers stabilized, and there were polls that even had our side leading just before the election. But, as you said, the Election Day results were as if the undecideds voted “yes.” To this day, I think that there was a Bradley effect.

As for Minnesota, my reading of the proposed amendment is that it only addresses “marriage,” by that name. The proposed amendment reads: “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.”

It has been common to interpret provisions like this as only prohibiting gay “marriage,” by that name specifically. Personally, I have never understood how such an amendment can be avoided by giving gay couples “civil unions,” with all of the rights and obligations of “marriage” minus only the name. But that has been the interpretation.

Finally, I wonder whether Dick Cheney would agree to participate in such an ad. I read that he personally lobbied a Republican legislator in Maryland to vote in favor of marriage equality.


June 4th, 2012

First off, your take on the polling is utterly simplistic. Numerous polls showed the “Yes on Question 1” side on the lead (if not incredibly close). The largest poll via the Public Policy Polling Maine (with a sample of over 1300) taken right before the election had “Yes On 1” pegged at 51% and No at 47%. So the picture of Maine in the run up to the election was never as clear as you make it out to be.

That of course begs the question of the “paradox” you mention. The Monkey Cage blog wrote about this last month and I think hit it spot on: We can’t compare past failures to now. Public *has* shifted, both nationally and on a state level. Now, we need to be careful about what that means. That does *not* mean that majorities in every state support marriage equality. They don’t. Look at NC… State level polling well before the ballot measure painted a very grim picture (even with a shift in the past couple years marriage equality does not have majority support in the state). The same can be said about all the Constitutional Amendments passed in ’04; they passed in states with low approval for marriage equality. They were going to pass regardless of what the campaign did or didn’t do because a majority of the people there *already* didnt approve of marriage equality. No ad, no yard sign, no paper or book can change that sort of dynamic.

With that said, I think it’s important to understand that since these battles take place on a *state* level, then we need to look at each particular case on its own to some extent. Maine and California are not the same kind of states. Neither is North Carolina. We need to pay attention to state level polling and trends and situate them properly.

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