Prop. 8 Lessons

By Lorri L. Jean

Originally published on Advocate.com August 03 2010 12:15 PM ET

All of us who were significantly involved in the effort to defeat Proposition 8 have reflected a great deal upon the lessons learned in that campaign. Now, thanks to an in-depth analysis by Dave Fleischer, who has more experience fighting anti-LGBT ballot measures than anyone in the country, the LGBT community has some invaluable insight into what it will take in California if we hope to repeal Proposition 8 at the ballot box, and how communities fighting or anticipating anti-LGBT ballot measures across the nation must prepare.

Two points in the report were most surprising to me:
(1) The election wasn’t really as close as the numbers suggest.
(2) An astounding number of people who were on our side early in the campaign — and from a demographic perspective presumed to be among our strongest supporters — switched their position later in the campaign.

The data establish that the election wasn’t as close as we thought because of “wrong-way voting.” Large numbers of people who opposed “gay marriage” mistakenly voted no. Far fewer people on our side inadvertently opposed the freedom to marry with a yes vote. If we correct for voter intent, our side actually lost the election by eight points rather than four. This means we have a much greater gap to bridge before it will be strategically sound to muster a repeal effort. Remember, in a measure to repeal Prop. 8, there will be no confusion about how to vote. A yes vote will mean yes to marriage for same-sex couples and a no vote will mean no.

As LGBT activists and our allies prepared for the fight over marriage that would become Prop. 8, those involved in the campaign knew victory would be an uphill battle. No such measure anywhere in the nation had ever been defeated, and in California, just eight years before, a statutory measure with identical language (Prop. 22) was passed by a margin of 23 points.Many believed that a key to victory would be finding a way to prevail over antigay prejudice, and there was hope that the time was right to do so, even though it was clear that some demographic groups, like Republican senior citizens, couldn’t be persuaded before the November 2008 vote. But no one foresaw that so many people who were assumed to be solidly in our base and who had previously supported us would, by Election Day, shift to oppose the freedom to marry. The Fleischer report reveals that huge numbers of parents with kids under 18 living at home, disproportionately white Democratic mothers — women who initially supported our freedom to marry — left us in droves after the other side invoked the specter of harm to children.

The lessons to be learned from this new information are crystal clear. First, future campaigns must find a way to preempt the scurrilous “your kids are in danger” appeal. Frustratingly, no campaign for the freedom to marry has succeeded at that.

Second, the ads and other tactics to unequivocally rebut ads that inflame fears about children must be created in advance and used immediately to respond to attacks, no matter what expert consultants or campaign managers say about the necessity for “message discipline” and sticking to the campaign message rather than responding to attacks.

The mistakes made in California (the No on 8 rebuttal ad worked, but it was too little, too late) and in Maine (which failed to explicitly rebut similar attack ads) cannot be repeated. Given the clear evidence and conclusions in the Prop. 8 report, there will never again be any plausible excuse for failing to properly respond to predictable attacks. And that’s the best thing about Fleischer’s report. It provides a road map for future campaigns that, if followed, may get us to victory much sooner than otherwise.

At the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, we’re doing our part to gather the kind of information that will be vital to repealing Prop. 8 and to waging similar campaigns across the country. Since January of 2009 we have been leading the effort to actually talk to people who voted to pass Prop. 8.Along with other center staff members and thousands of volunteers, I have spent weekends standing on doorsteps in precincts throughout Los Angeles where majorities voted to pass Prop. 8. We’ve literally had more than 7,500 face-to-face conversations with voters about Prop. 8, the marriage issue, and the fact that it will be returning to the ballot. We talk about the tough subjects, including children and even religion. We try different tactics to see what works in convincing people to change their minds. We ask them specifically if they’ll support us the next time. And we diligently keep track of what we’re learning and tweak our approaches to make them more effective.

All of this information will be vital to future campaigns seeking to defeat measures similar to Prop. 8 or to repeal Prop. 8 itself. It hopefully will enable us to develop specific strategies that will be successful in overcoming parents’ irrational fears regarding children and their understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.

The sad truth is that the real danger to children isn’t equality under the law for same-sex couples. It’s the harm done to LGBT children and to the kids of LGBT parents by discrimination that leaves families unprotected and relegates them to second-class status. And it’s the misleading, reprehensible and demeaning propaganda of the bigoted zealots behind the anti-marriage campaigns.

If the lessons and recommendations of "The Prop. 8 Report" are taken to heart, I have no doubt that the tide can turn on these measures. May that day come soon!