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Anatomy of a Failed Campaign

Anatomy of a Failed Campaign


In two short months, the battle over California's Proposition 8 went from double-digit opposition to passing with 52% of the vote on Election Day. Could the heartbreaking loss have been avoided? Depends on who you ask.

At the No on 8 field office in Los Angeles's Silver Lake neighborhood on the eve of Election Day, it was hard to imagine defeat. The two large, brightly lit rooms reserved for training volunteers were packed; the hallways were almost impassible. A crowd of supporters had gathered outside, unable to squeeze through the door. "That's not a problem," said field manager Heather Gibson, grinning. And she was right. Before the smile had left her face, a coworker came in to announce that MJ's, the gay bar across the street, would take in the overflow.

Even in the context of California's big-money ballot initiatives, the fight over Proposition 8, which sought to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, was a battle of epic proportions. According to Ron Buckmire, who heads the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, an African-American gay rights group, "It was the largest LGBT field operation in history." Los Angeles County expected to turn out 7,500 volunteers on Election Day. Statewide, nearly 50,000 volunteers had lent the campaign their time and sweat for months. Thousands opened their wallets too. Gay rights leaders said they expected to need about $20 million to defeat Prop. 8 back when it qualified for the ballot in June; six months later both sides together had raised more than $70 million. By November 4 the No on 8 campaign had raised $38 million, outpacing the Yes on 8 camp, which received some $20 million from members of the Mormon Church. "It's nothing short of miraculous," said West Hollywood city council member John Duran four days before Election Day.

Yet the Yes side still won -- 52.3% to 47.7% -- leaving gay Californians and their allies both surprised and crestfallen. A Field Poll released on September 18 showed Prop. 8 trailing by double-digit margins. And while that had narrowed to just five percentage points by Halloween, marriage equality proponents hadn't expected to lose Los Angeles County, necessary to offset the votes for Prop. 8 in conservative parts of the state. Even worse, in an election marked by record turnout, less than two thirds of registered voters in San Francisco and Los Angeles went to the polls. What had gone wrong?

The official narrative of defeat -- at least its early version -- is fairly simple and at least partially true: Despite a heroic effort on the part of the No on 8 campaign, homophobia and fear outweighed tolerance and respect for gay people's right to marry (again). But considering that in 2000, 61% of Californians voted for a statutory ban on same-sex marriage -- the one that was invalidated by the state supreme court in May -- support had grown considerably. It was impossible to foresee the ferocity of Yes on 8's largely Mormon-sponsored fund-raising effort. It took too long for LGBT citizens to shake off their complacency after winning the right to marry. The other side told too many lies and sowed too much fear. Bigotry was still too powerful. As the No on 8 campaign's Sky Johnson glumly puts it, "There's a lot of people that don't like gay people."

In the days after Prop. 8 won, protests would spring up all over California. More than 1,000 rallied in front of the Los Angeles Mormon Temple in the Westwood district on November 6, taking to the streets and snagging traffic in parts of west L.A. for hours. On Friday as many as 10,000 gathered in San Diego's Balboa Park, and 2,000 marched through downtown San Francisco. The next day 10,000 more marched through San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood and more than 12,000 protesters shut down Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake.

But not all the anger that spilled onto the streets was directed at the Yes on 8 crowd. A good deal of it has been directed inward, at the leaders of a campaign many think should have -- and this time really could have -- won. People from both inside and outside the campaign are pointing fingers at the small clique of California LGBT leaders who directed the campaign -- Lorri Jean of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Geoff Kors of Equality California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Kate Kendell, Delores Jacobs of the San Diego LGBT Community Center, and Michael Fleming of the David Bohnett Foundation -- charging that their insularity and inexperience with the humongous task at hand turned what should have been a difficult victory into a painful loss.

"They just didn't want to hear from people," says one Democratic Party insider, whose repeated offers to connect the campaign with powerful donors went ignored. "They just were asleep, and they were talking [only] to each other."

"We were just up against enormous forces," Jean says.

Previous efforts to field an initiative that would write a gay marriage ban into the constitution had been paltry at best. Two competing right-wing groups had been trying since 2005 to gather enough signatures to get their measures on the ballot. In December 2007, though, the Christian right began to throw its weight--and money -- behind the effort. James Dobson's Focus on the Family gave $50,000 to a group calling itself, and another $50,000 five months later. Conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher's National Organization for Marriage kicked in more than $300,000 in February 2008. The donations did the trick. By June,'s initiative had been approved for the ballot -- just weeks after the supreme court had ruled that the "fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship [applies] to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples."

"There wasn't much time for us to celebrate being fully equal under law before it became clear that there was going to be this very difficult struggle," says Lambda Legal staff attorney Jenny Pizer. On June 29 the Mormon Church distributed a letter to all of its congregations asking members to "do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman." A month later, Jim Garlow, pastor of a San Diego megachurch, rallied the evangelical troops in a conference call of 3,000 California, Arizona, and Florida ministers in which Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson called the initiative "the Armageddon of the culture war." Two days later -- on August 1 -- Family Research Council president Tony Perkins warned on his radio program that "if California goes forward with same-sex marriage, mark my word, we will begin to see this march across the country."

Throughout the summer the Yes on 8 campaign's urgent call attracted huge donations -- more than $1 million from the Knights of Columbus and almost as much from the National Organization for Marriage. Millions more were coming in from individual Mormon donors. Mormon and evangelical Christian churchgoers provided a small army's worth of volunteer labor too. Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City asked each California congregation -- 770,000 Mormons live in the state -- to have churchgoers devote four hours a week to the effort. Evangelical megachurches provided a ready corps of volunteers: Orange County-based Saddleback Church alone has 23,000 parishioners.

Jean and others at the helm of the No on 8 campaign say they had a hard time awakening equivalent enthusiasm in the LGBT community, particularly because of the steady stream of polls showing Prop. 8 trailing by as much as 17 and 14 percentage points. "It was difficult raising money because of those polls," Kors says, adding that the campaign's internal numbers never reflected such comfortable margins of victory.

"If we could have found a way to energize our community faster, we could have competed with them," Jean says. "We experienced enormous complacency in our community until we finally put out the word that we were going down."

But before the Mayday call rang out, the Yes on 8 campaign broadcast its first television ad on September 29, laying out the themes that its side would continue to hammer home until Election Day: Prop. 8's failure would mean children would be taught about same-sex marriage in public school, and churches refusing to marry same-sex couples could lose their tax-exempt status. Both charges were questionable at best, demonstrably false at worst, but they generated enough fear that it didn't matter.

Within a week of the ad's airing the numbers had flipped. An internal poll released on October 7 found Prop. 8 winning by four percentage points and the Yes campaign ahead by nearly $10 million in fund-raising. "Our worst nightmares are coming true," Kors wrote that day in an e-mail fund-raising blast. "People were freaking out over what people were calling the lack of urgency in the campaign," Buckmire says. "They got pretty urgent pretty quick."

That same day the No on 8 leadership held an emergency meeting in Los Angeles. Campaign manager Dale Kelly Bankhead, public affairs director for San Diego's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, was quietly replaced with a seasoned political operator -- former Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Guerriero, who took a leave of absence from his job running Gill Action to take charge of the faltering effort.

While Jean characterizes Guerriero's hiring as "bringing in reinforcements," others call it a shift in strategy. Regardless, in the weeks leading up to the election, the campaign raised more than $20 million, raising the total from less than $16 million before his arrival to more than $38 million by Election Day. "Not since the HIV/AIDS epidemic have I seen our community rise to the occasion like that," Jean says.

"We basically did better than any other marriage campaign has ever done," Kors says, although in 2006 a marriage ban was rejected by Arizona voters. "But that's not good enough."

Both poles of the gay rights movement, from grassroots activists to polished politicos, complain that they were shut out of No on 8's decision-making process from the start. "I have never seen a campaign so top-down," says Robin Tyler, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that overturned California's marriage ban in May. "You can't lock out an entire grassroots movement." She and her wife, Diane Olson, filed a new lawsuit on the morning of November 5 to challenge the Prop. 8 results. She showed similar haste making her concerns public at a press conference held that day. "A few weeks ago I said, 'If we won it would be despite No on 8, and if we lost it would be because of No on 8.' "

Observers say problems were evident from the start. Bankhead had never run a campaign of anything approaching this magnitude. In July, when the Mormon Church was beginning to build its organizing machine -- signing up volunteers, raising money, spreading the word -- key members of the No on 8 leadership were literally absent. Kors took a 2 1/2-week vacation. Jean went to Alaska for the month. "Any time that anybody took off did not in any way have a negative impact on the campaign," Jean says in her defense. "I'm flattered to think I was that indispensable."

Yet, according to many, the complacency that the campaign leadership has been blaming on their base started at the top. Even offers of help from a major national LGBT organization were rebuffed. "I can't imagine they didn't see this coming," says one frustrated campaign insider, "but everybody was kind of like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, it's the big one,' " as if they didn't grasp the gravity of the fight.

Many LGBT people were also unhappy with the No campaign's early television ads, charging that they were painfully cautious, almost apologetic. The first ad to air featured an elderly straight couple pleading on behalf of their unseen gay daughter. The next didn't even use the word gay, instead depicting two straight women earnestly discussing same-sex marriage over coffee.

"They hid us in the closet," complains West Hollywood political consultant Terry Leftgoff. He argues that the images of happy gay couples marrying--with no apocalyptic consequences--that filled California and national news all spring and summer did more to humanize gay couples than any scripted, studio-staged ads could, and that No on 8's ad campaign squandered that public relations advantage. "You cannot hide what you're fighting for. It doesn't work," Tyler says. "This is a civil rights movement. We can't win if we're hidden."

"We knew all along that it was very likely that the ads that would be effective with undecided voters would not be viscerally appealing to our community," Jean says. "Every single one of those ads tested well with undecided voters."

It was precisely the reliance on PR firms and focus groups that people found frustrating. Even when phoning potential supporters, "we weren't allowed to say anything that wasn't intensely focus-grouped," says one female longtime L.A. activist who volunteered with the campaign. Volunteers were instructed not to engage with anyone but supporters and undecided voters, and then to do so within strict parameters. "We weren't allowed to talk about children and families," she says, which meant they couldn't address the issues raised by the Yes campaign's scare tactics, except to blandly deny them. "To political people who were used to campaigns and grassroots [organizing], it was especially painful. If we're going to have a profound cultural shift in dealing with intense bias, then we need to talk about this." The campaign's timidity, she and others felt, undercut the most basic goals of the LGBT rights movement.

The Yes side was anything but cautious. Few of its lines of attack were hard to predict, but most had been employed in previous efforts to ban same-sex marriage in states across the country. "Nothing should have taken [the No on 8 side] by surprise," says the Democratic insider, but No on 8's responses were consistently sluggish. "They violated the first rule of political campaigns, which is 'Do not let yourself be defined by your opponent first,' " Leftgoff says. The campaign was almost entirely on the defensive against one attack or another. Guerriero, who prefers to focus on the future, does note the bind the campaign was in when he arrived. "The other side was able to walk on air and basically define the race," he says. "Unfortunately, at that point the No on 8 campaign wasn't in a position to challenge that." Guerriero sharpened the No on 8 message, addressing homophobia head-on by tying Prop. 8 to the long history of bigotry in the state, from discriminatory housing covenants to antimiscegenation laws. But playing catch-up isn't the best way to win--though No on 8 might still have prevailed "if there were another 10 days" to reverse the initial damage, Guerriero says. In the future, he adds, initiatives this important require "that the smartest political people get engaged from day one."

Beyond losing the messaging battle, the campaign made other missteps. Los Angeles County, where a quarter of California's votes would be cast, is more than 35% Latino, but the largely white campaign leadership was slow to undertake any significant engagement with the city's Latino population. The field office in predominantly Mexican-American east Los Angeles wasn't opened until October 8. The first Spanish-language television spot didn't air until eight days before the election. As late as November 1 no talking points in Spanish were available for bilingual phone-bank workers, one volunteer says. "It was definitely an afterthought," she says.

But Jean says that anyone making such claims has "no idea about the trajectory of the campaign," citing "significant work" among Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans dating to 2005.Still, she acknowledges that more should have been done earlier to win over black voters by publicizing Barack Obama's opposition to Prop. 8. But before they had the chance, the Yes folks--who had assiduously courted the black ministry--sent out a mailer implying Obama was in favor of the marriage ban. By the time the No on 8 campaign got an ad out to counter the mailer, they were once again playing defense. In the end, exit polls indicated that Latinos voted in favor of Prop. 8 by 53% to 47%, and a exit poll stated 70% of African-Americans voted for it. (Whites split right down the middle.)

Though Kors says "millions of calls" were made to voters on Election Day and the night before, most of the thousands of volunteers who turned out to help get out the vote were dispatched to electioneering work at polling places, rather than making sure voters got to the polls in the first place. "This was a get-out-to-the-polls-and-watch-people-vote effort," Leftgoff says.

As for the low turnout rates in liberal strongholds like Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, Kors and Jean suggest that voters may not have bothered trudging to their polling places once it was clear that Obama had won. But California is a reliably blue state--everyone knew Obama would sail to victory there--and, as Leftgoff points out, the networks didn't call the presidential race until after West Coast polls had closed.

The morning after the election Lambda Legal's Pizer was already in court, petitioning the state to refrain from implementing Prop. 8 until a lawsuit contesting the initiative's validity is resolved. The suit argues that the change Prop. 8 proposes to do to our constitution is so enormous, it cannot legally be instituted via the amendment process. The elimination of a previously existing right, the suit contends, requires the more onerous process of constitutional "revision," in which a bill must be passed in both houses of the state legislature by a two-thirds majority before it can be turned over to a popular vote. "The idea is that the constitution is not supposed to be subject to easy changes," Pizer says.

Two other suits challenging the initiative--one by lawyer Gloria Allred, who's representing Tyler and Olson, and another by Santa Clara County and the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco--were filed on similar grounds. "On the merits, they've got a decent shot," says David Cruz, a constitutional law expert who specializes in same-sex marriage issues at the University of Southern California. But the case will not likely be decided solely on its merits. California supreme court judges come up before the voters every 12 years, and reversing the will of the people on the same issue twice in a decade could carry heavy political costs, Cruz says.

The protests that have broken out in city after city have made it clear that LGBT Californians are not ready to give up the fight yet--either to the prejudices of their adversaries or the rigid control of their own leadership. Most of the rallies and marches have been hastily organized grassroots outpourings unaided by No on 8 staff. "Everything that was repressed during the campaign is finally coming out," the former campaign volunteer says.

At the anti-Prop. 8 rally in Silver Lake on November 8, Tyler spoke to a crowd of thousands, expressing as much anger at the campaign leadership as the proposition's supporters. That morning she had sent out an e-mail outlining similar talking points. "We need to analyze what happened, what went wrong, who was responsible for making the decisions," she wrote, "and then go on from there. The few 'leaders' who decided they would be the heads of this campaign took the responsibility upon themselves. They now need to answer to our community."

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Ben Ehrenreich