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Lessons in Marriage Equality Campaigns

Lessons in Marriage Equality Campaigns


The manager for the "No on 1" campaign in Maine that sought to keep voters there from overturning marriage-equality legislation last fall pondered the lessons of the unsuccessful effort at a Netroots Nation panel in Las Vegas on Thursday.

"This is still very painful for us to talk about. We put forth a campaign that we thought was going to be the first one in the nation to win," he said of him and his fellow panelists, Julia Rosen with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Adam Bink of, and Joe Sudbay of, all of whom worked closely with the campaign in different capacities.

Connolly thanked the room of activists for engaging so thoughtfully in rehashing the effort. "This is something that, for a straight ally like me, is one the most important things in my life -- to figure out how we win these campaigns," he said.

Connolly spoke to The Advocate following the panel.

During the panel you said that you thought running a marriage equality campaign during an off-year election was disadvantageous. Why?
If you look at some of the voter turnout rate, we had to spend a lot of our time and resources pushing people to get out and vote, and that took away from resources that we could have otherwise used to persuade persuadable voters. It's always helpful to have other things that voters are excited about. Equality might be important for them but might not be the one thing that gets them out to vote.

Of course if you look [at the bill that added nondiscrimination protections in Maine], it failed in '98 and failed again in 2000, and then finally we passed it in 2005. So there's no guarantees, but I think it's a helpful framework for these campaigns.

What do you think the other side did best in terms of messaging?
Well, they did a lot of things well. But the one ad that I think was an interesting play for them was an ad in the last week to 10 days; it was uplifting and said gay and lesbian families have all the rights they need [through that state's current domestic partnerships], so it's OK to vote "yes" [and overturn the marriage equality law].

After they hammered us on schools and the idea of gay sex being taught in the schools, they switched to this uplifting tone that I thought was very strategic on their part -- basically giving voters permission to vote against us without feeling bad about it for those that might have been on the fence.

Have you had any second thoughts about your own messaging?
I think the messaging that we put forth was very strong, I think the consulting team that did our TV spots did a great job of executing the message we were running on.
I think the bigger question is around the timing of the election, wondering why our supporters didn't go vote. Those are more burning questions versus the coulda/woulda/shouldas on messaging. We were trying to boost turnout and put messages up there that encouraged people to go voted. But as we look through our data, there was a swath of voters who didn't go vote and we need to try to understand why they didn't.

You said you did a weekly call with the blogging community during the campaign and joked that you didn't always look forward to it even though you deemed it incredibly useful. Can you give an example of how you worked with the bloggers?
We did a weekly call with them and we often previewed ads with them. We had two ads that we previewed with them that were targeted toward different groups of voters. One was a dad from the northern part of the state talking about his gay daughter and the other one was with a high school kid talking about his two moms.

Our thoughts on which one should run heavier were different than the bloggers' thoughts. The bloggers liked the message that the son was talking about his two moms and they liked that he was talking about it in first person from a more personal standpoint versus a father being a little more removed from his daughter.

We still ran both ads, but we ended up putting the ad with the high schooler on the air at a higher rate based on the bloggers' input. They were a good focus group. I thought this was a way to use this community; we didn't just use them as an ATM for fund-raising. They're skilled campaign tacticians, and we really valued their input and criticisms.

And tell me about the campaign you're working on now to get pro-equality legislators who voted for the marriage equality bill reelected.
Equality Maine and the coalition partners are looking to blunt the assertion by the National Organization for Marriage that there will be consequences for voting for the bill. We have put together some campaign strategies to make sure that there's a receptive legislature elected this fall that feels marriage equality is a priority.

One antiequality lawmaker, Dick Blanchard, was defeated in a primary in June.

And this fall we'll be in numerous [state] senate districts and a number of [state] house districts. We're evaluating right now and trying to figure out how our money is best spent.

It's an exciting project to be a part of because we are truly showing legislators that voted for the marriage bill who are in tough re-elections that we care enough to help them and also show those who voted against that there are consequences. But we'll be spending the majority of time helping people who voted for the bill.
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