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.
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.
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!