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Prop. 8: The Parent Trap

Prop. 8: The Parent Trap


In the wake of the devastating passage of Proposition 8 in California, analysts were quick to assign blame, with many commonly citing exit polls that attributed the loss of same-sex marriage to African-American voters. Opposition from racial minorities and other factors, such as the assumption of support from white Democratic voters, have come to inform the Prop. 8 conversation since the discriminatory ballot measure, which repealed same-sex marriage rights, passed in November 2008, but a new report questions the accepted wisdom and suggests other reasons for the outcome, some of them surprising.

"The Prop 8 Report," released Tuesday by the LGBT Mentoring Project in Los Angeles, analyzes daily polling commissioned by the No on 8 campaign in the final six weeks of the campaign, when a close contest began to turn in favor of antigay forces led by the Yes on 8 campaign. With a focus on TV advertisements, the predominant way the campaigns reached voters, the report concludes that parents with children under 18 living at home played a potentially decisive role in the passage of Prop. 8, constituting more than three quarters of nearly 700,000 voters, most of them white Democrats, who switched sides in the most heated days of the campaign and voted to oppose same-sex marriage. Given that Prop. 8 passed by 52% to 48%, or a margin of nearly 600,000 votes, parents and like-minded voters could have swung the contest at the last minute, the report suggests.

"There was very little movement among African-Americans away from us," said David Fleischer, the author of the report and founder of the LGBT Mentoring Project. "The movement away from us in the final six weeks was really large-scale, and it turned out that the key group we lost was parents, parents with children under 18 living with home. This is what the opposition was trying to do and what the data confirm is that they worked."

In essence the report finds that while African-Americans remained stable in their opposition throughout the campaign, Yes on 8 chipped into the gay base and even picked off new gay allies with TV advertisements that played to parents' fears about how their children would be affected by same-sex marriage. The same strategy would be exported and repeated in Maine the next year, where Question 1 passed last November and repealed the state's marriage equality law.

The 551-page report, developed over two years, cites TV advertisements such as "Princes," which premiered in English and Spanish in October 2008 and warned parents that their children would be taught about same-sex marriage in school unless Prop. 8 passed. By comparing the daily polling from No on 8 to the day the ads were released, "The Prop 8 Report" demonstrates the real-time impact of the scare tactics.

"I know the exact day every ad went out the air," said Fleischer. "It turns out that when you chart voters' movement, the day when these ads go up, when they have an impact, there's movement."

The analysis holds implications for future battles against antigay ballot measures, namely, the lesson that homophobic allegations must be rebutted immediately and unequivocally. Fleischer, who did not work on the No on 8 campaign, cites an ad with California schools superintendent Jack O'Connell, which strongly refuted the claims made in "Princes," but premiered two weeks later, a significant lag time.

"You can see when Yes on 8 starts to do well, and then you can see the only point when No on 8 is able to start to win some voters back," Fleischer said. "The O'Connell ad was the only one that was a direct response. We've got to be less timid about rebutting. We've got to treat those ads the way a candidate would a character attack."

But the road ahead requires more than toughness. In fact, another key lesson is that the path to victory is longer than marriage equality advocates may think, where "The Prop 8 Report" argues that the contest was much less close than the four-percentage-point margin of 52% to 48% suggests. The report finds that more than half a million voters opposed to marriage equality were confused by the ballot language and voted no without realizing their vote supported the same-sex marriage side.

"It turns out that when you are able to look at this data, over 500,000 voters cast a ballot that was the opposite of their intention in terms of public policy," said Fleischer. "They were wrong-way voters. Had they voted the way they wanted to, we'd have lost by a million votes. It's not really that close."

Fleischer, who has worked with campaigns against antigay ballot measures since 1993, said that while some results of the data analysis surprised him, other findings, like the antigay campaign's effective focus on parents, were not new. The bottom line points to a need for deeper assessment before heading back to the ballot in California or anywhere else.

"The problem here is that our opposition keeps doing the same damn things and we keep doing the same damn things," he said. "It makes more sense that they keep doing the same damn things because they're winning."
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