On any given day, conventional wisdom is king in American politics, particularly inside the D.C. Beltway. America will never elect a black man with the middle name "Hussein." John McCain's campaign is broke — he'll never win the Republican nomination for president. The 2011 "personhood" initiative banning abortion and contraception will pass overwhelmingly in conservative, antichoice Mississippi. An unknown Republican state senator could never win Ted Kennedy's seat in hard-core blue Massachusetts. The list goes on.
Most often, these predictions are made by people who take only a cursory glance at the issue. Take Amendment One in North Carolina, a ballot measure to ban not only same-sex marriage but all other forms of relationship recognition (such as civil unions and domestic partnerships) in the state of North Carolina — for same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples.
If you follow conventional wisdom, you probably took one quick look at: (a) a map, (b) a poll, (c) a date on the calendar, (d) the issue, and concluded by thinking, Oh, North Carolina is a conservative southern state, May 8 (Election Day) is primary day for Republican presidential candidates, more than 50% of North Carolina voters say they'd vote for Amendment One, marriage is an icky gay issue. This is a sure loser.
But smart politics isn't about a glance at whatever the media tell us matters most. Some of the biggest upsets have come unexpectedly because underlying dynamics go ignored. Consider:
1. North Carolina voters support Amendment One ... until they learn what it does. On March 29, Public Policy Polling, one of the most respected independent polling firms on the issue of same-sex marriage, found that support for the measure plummets when those surveyed understand the broad harms of Amendment One. Although the poll finds majority support for Amendment One, it also reveals that support falls below 50% when they learn what it does — and a 34% plurality say they are "not sure exactly" what Amendment One does, while 28% think it would only ban marriage. These numbers follow Elon University's poll in mid March that showed 57% of likely voters oppose an amendment "that would prevent civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples." It leaves a window for a successful campaign, if it’s fully funded, to educate voters on what Amendment One would really do. PPP director Tom Jensen emphasized this point: "When voters are informed that the amendment bans both gay marriage and civil unions their tune changes quite a bit. Only 41% of voters say they'll support it knowing that, while 42% are opposed. So despite the large current lead for the amendment, there is some hope for those trying to defeat it. It's just going to take a lot of education and effort over the final six weeks to make sure voters really understand exactly what they're voting on."
2. Conservative support for Amendment One is crumbling. In just the past week, North Carolina Republican House speaker Thom Tillis conceded that future generations are likely to repeal Amendment One within 20 years, given the age trend in support for same-sex marriage. Former Charlotte mayor and Republican gubernatorial nominee Richard Vinroot came out opposed to Amendment One, joining other elected leaders such as Tea Party congresswoman Renee Ellmers. And John Hood, known as "the voice of conservatism in North Carolina" as president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, wrote in his statewide syndicated column that Amendment One is "unwise and unfair."
3. The pro-equality coalition opposing Amendment One is diverse, deep and unified. President Obama, who rarely speaks out on state ballot measures, went out of his way to release a statement via his campaign March 16, noting that Amendment One would "single out and discriminate against committed gay and lesbian couples." He joins the North Carolina NAACP, the North Carolina Council of Churches, the Alliance of Baptists, and dozens of other faith leaders in speaking to North Carolina's African-American population and Democrats in general. Cathy Bessant, former head of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and the top North Carolina official at Bank of America (which is headquartered in Charlotte and is one of the largest employers in the state) filmed a video against Amendment One. Democratic governor Bev Purdue, Sen. Kay Hagan, and every other state Democratic officeholder who has been asked have all also spoken out against Amendment One. Progressive organizations including Courage Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign along with bloggers from sites such as Pam's House Blend, DailyKos, and AmericaBlog are working daily to defeat Amendment One. Even Democratic National Committee chairwoman and Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, herself a supporter of marriage equality, said she would "certainly consider" funding the campaign to defeat Amendment One, and is in talks with the Coalition to Protect NC Families.
4. The conventional wisdom that only Republicans will vote in this election is flat-out wrong. It's wrong for three big reasons: One, North Carolina has early voting beginning April 19 (including same-day registration) and an unusually large college student population, with more than 300,000 voter-eligible college students, the overwhelming majority of whom is opposed to Amendment One. Two, North Carolina has a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary on May 8 to replace retiring governor Perdue, which will drive voters generally opposed to Amendment One. And three, just because Republican presidential candidates are on the ballot doesn't mean Republicans are rushing in droves to go vote. The New York Times recently reported that total voter turnout in Republican primaries as a percentage of eligible population has declined since 2008, reflecting a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates. Not only that, but with Mitt Romney pulling away from the field, conservative voters will be even less likely to have a reason to go vote on May 8.
5. Opponents of Amendment One have stepped up to help fund the campaign. A Courage Campaign and netroots-fueled money bomb launched one week ago pulled in over $50,000 on ActBlue and $90,000 overall online, pushing the campaign across the $1 million raised mark. The Human Rights Campaign has invested heavily in defeating Amendment One. With 30 staff members in seven offices across the state, North Carolina is now the second-best funded campaign in the South to defeat a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage with still more than a month to go.
6. Supporters of LGBT rights can defeat this kind of amendment. Why? Because we've done it before. In 2006 voters in Arizona (another so-deemed "conservative red state") defeated Prop 107, a constitutional amendment with remarkably similar language to Amendment One and a measure that also banned any alternative form of relationship recognition for same-sex or opposite-sex couples, which proved to be its fatal flaw. If Amendment One passes, straight sisters living together and dependent on one another (think Golden Girls) could not make financial arrangements they need. Opposite-sex couples who choose not to be married but need similar rights and protections would be harmed. Children of same-sex couples would be stripped of protections, and the elderly would also be harmed. Even domestic violence protections for women are at risk. Arizona state senator Kyrsten Sinema, who chaired the coalition that defeated Prop 107, pointed to its successful "bait-and-switch" strategy that focused on taking away domestic benefits and legal protections from unmarried partners of any gender. This is fatal Achilles' heel of Amendment One at which the Coalition to Protect NC Families is already pricking.
7. North Carolina isn't just another southern state. North Carolina was one of a few southern states to vote for that black man with the middle name "Hussein" to be president. North Carolina is the only southeastern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. North Carolina is the first and only state in the South that legally protects students from bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the first in the South to enact any sort of protection against discrimination based on gender identity/expression. The notion that North Carolina voters are just too southern and can't be educated on what Amendment One is and why they should vote no is condescending and a flawed assumption.
8. The nationwide trend in favor of relationship recognition for same-sex couples has never been stronger. North Carolina faces Amendment One when local and national public opinion has shifted to majority support in favor of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Over the past year, state after state has moved to enact relationship recognition for same-sex couples, whether it's establishing marriage equality (Washington, Maryland, New York), defeating attempts to take away legal recognition (New Hampshire), or enacting civil unions (Illinois, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Delaware). Courts have struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 repeatedly. Even the U.S. Senate has gotten into the act, with the Senate Judiciary Committee voting to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act last September. You could say, "Sure, but that's not in North Carolina." But every time news is made showing progress toward equality, we help move the hearts and minds of everyone — including North Carolinians.
So I'll take the wager that the most progressive southern state of them all has come a long way on this issue and is poised to come even further May 8 — if we suspend our belief that Amendment One will pass just because conventional wisdom says it will. We've seen bigger political upsets, and with just a few weeks to go until May 8, our movement is poised to see another one.
ADAM BINK is director of online programs for Courage Campaign, an online organizing network that empowers more than 750,000 grassroots and netroots activists to push for progressive change and full equality in California and across the country. Learn more about our work to help defeat Amendment One at www.couragecampaign.org, and do your part to help defeat Amendment One by chipping in on ActBlue.