Like many, I was sorely disappointed at the news that a recent, highly publicized study showing the persuasiveness of in-depth conversations on marriage was disavowed by its lead author because of apparently fraudulent data. It's unconscionable that could have happened and I hope the study can be salvaged.
Yet as the reporting on that story gained steam, I grew concerned that the wrong conclusion would be drawn from this unfortunate news. In-depth, in-person conversations on marriage are indeed effective, and Freedom to Marry and our partners have worked for the last seven years with some of the country’s top social scientists — separate and apart from the disavowed study — to test our techniques, make adjustments, scrap what isn’t working, and double down on what is. The study may have been flawed, but the tactic being studied is not — and the progress we have made in changing hearts and minds, and our own experience and care over years of work, show that definitively; unrefuted by one flawed study.
Following the passage of Proposition 8 in California in November 2008, Freedom to Marry along with state groups in our movement such as Basic Rights Oregon partnered with the Analyst Institute, a firm made up of social scientists, to conduct “evidence-based” tests on campaign tactics to evaluate whether and how well they’re working. As a campaign person, I was immediately drawn to the Analyst Institute approach. Over the years, I’d participated in multiple get-out-the-vote, voter registration, direct mail, and television persuasion campaigns. And while we used conventional ways to test which ads voters preferred, like focus groups, no one I knew of was conducting rigorous experiments to be able to prove — after the fact — which tactics actually worked and which were most effective. The Analyst Institute approach was new and, to a campaign person, tremendously exciting. And after the painful loss in California, where our side spent over $40 million, we wanted to be as sure as we could that what we were doing going forward was working.
In Oregon, our team of campaigners worked with the Analyst Institute on tests to evaluate the persuasive effects of direct mail versus door-to-door canvassing. And in California and especially in Maine, we tested the efficacy of one-on-one conversations both over the telephone and at the door. These were not typical, scripted conversations. They were unscripted, long-form conversations where trained canvassers — both gay and straight — would engage conflicted voters by asking probing questions, engaging around issues that the voters would raise (about religion, values, tradition, and the like) and sharing their own stories about why they support the freedom to marry. Through tests that our campaigns conducted, and in tests that the Analyst Institute conducted for us, we found those kinds of conversations produced real results.
For example, in Maine, we knew that it would be difficult to get to parts of the state on foot. But we didn’t know the persuasive power of in-depth conversations over the telephone. So we wanted to test the efficacy of those before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in such an effort. In a controlled experiment with the Analyst Institute, we found we increased net support for the freedom to marry by 13 percent among middle-of-the-road voters through such conversations. As a result, the campaign invested the resources to be able to have hundreds of thousands of these person-to-person exchanges. What’s more, the campaign itself continued to test and verify the efficacy of that work and verified that those conversations were moving voters at approximately a similar rate.
In California, we tested the efficacy of in-depth conversations at the doors and found that we moved 20 percent of opposed and undecided voters to a place of greater support. In Maine, the campaign leaders relied on that test, and conducted their own tests, and they found that 20-24 percent of all opposed and undecided individuals became more supportive through in-depth conversations at the doors. We also found that the majority of those whose positions had shifted stayed steady months later. As a result, the Maine ballot campaign invested millions of dollars into field work and knocked on more than 100,000 doors to engage in these in-depth conversations. And of course, Maine was among the first states to win marriage equality at the ballot, in 2012, after 33 losses in a row in various states.
Freedom to Marry’s field director Amy Mello is fond of saying, “If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen.” And so from California, to Maine, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, and beyond, we used each conversation as a data point to track our progress, refine our methods, and improve our approach and persuasion rate.
Of course, if one steps back and looks at the macro trends, the efficacy of these kinds of conversations syncs up with what national polling demonstrates is taking place. Gains on the freedom to marry represent what GOP pollster Glen Bolger calls “an unprecedented shift in public opinion.” Over the past several months, several public polls — most recently Gallup — show support at 60 percent or greater. And while some of the shift is the result of demographic trends, most of it is the result of every slice of the electorate we’ve examined (and engaged) — seniors, Republicans, Southerners, rural voters, African-Americans — recalibrating and changing their minds. It’s our experience that engagement at the local level — honest conversations with committed couples, their family and those who care about them — has been at the heart of this powerful transformation.
It’s my hope that other social movements can learn from our trials, errors, and successes. And it would be a real shame if one tainted study caused those who are trying to make social change veer away from tactics that we at Freedom to Marry know are now tried, true, and proven to work.