A Look at What Happened on Amendment 1 in North Carolina

I spent much of the spring working on defeating anti-gay Amendment 1 in North Carolina. After the election I returned back from the Raleigh/Durham area and had a chance to chew on the outcome of Amendment 1. It's been my habit, after major wins or losses, to reflect on what went right and what went wrong, and offer some thoughts (see Maine 2009 Part 1 and Part 2, along with the 2009 New York State Senate fight on same-sex marriage here and here). Below are some of those along with some analysis.

The Composition of the Electorate Drove the Outcome

Over at the Institute for Southern Studies, Chris Kromm describes this best: Republican leadership and the rank-and-file in the General Assembly, joined by some Democrats who felt pressured on the issue, decided to help motivate and drive turnout in 2012 using Amendment 1 as a vehicle. Primary electorates tend to be older and, on this issue, more conservative -- witness nearly 50 percent of early votes in this election being from those aged 60 or older. Primaries also tend to favor communities with what Chris describes as "more established turnout vehicles" -- in this case, churches whose memberships were in favor of Amendment 1. Durham's Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend sat back in the war room on Tuesday night and noted how much church rank-and-file on the ground drove -- literally drove, in some cases -- pro-Amendment-1 voters to the polls.

So while turnout overall was remarkably high -- 2.138 million voters turned out, narrowly beating the previous high for a primary (2.125 million voters in 2008) -- one person aptly compared the election to the 2004 Kerry campaign. I worked for an organization driving pro-Kerry turnout (America Coming Together) in Cleveland that year, where we hit our vote goals in precinct after precinct. The problem was that pro-Bush turnout was even higher. Also of note to consider: The vote goal for the Campaign to Protect All NC Families was 508,000, meaning, if we turned out 508,000 voters who vote against Amendment 1, we were likely to win. The total number of raw votes against Amendment 1 was beyond expectations and far beyond the goal -- 832,863. That's over 300,000 more. But again, pro-Amendment-1 forces also did well on the ground. From that point of view, we did our job on turnout -- but did not get far enough on persuasion.

"We Didn't Lose, We Just Ran Out of Time"

Given the data on turnout and composition of the electorate, one way to look at this is the old Vince Lombardi football adage: "We didn't lose, we just ran out of time." Given the composition of the primary electorate, would a vote on Amendment 1 in the general election have fared better? Unclear, though likely. The reason is because the campaign was able to cut a 27-point lead for Amendment 1 far down, and because polls over time showed that the more North Carolinians knew about Amendment 1, the less they supported it. What's more, remarkable numbers of North Carolinians did not understand what Amendment 1 did. One need only read the polling memo on April 24 from Public Policy Polling's (PPP) Tom Jensen (bolding mine):

There is some reason to think a huge upset in two weeks is within the realm of possibility. 53% of voters in the state support either gay marriage or civil unions, with only 44% opposed to any recognition for same sex couples. The proposed amendment would ban both gay marriage and civil unions, but voters continue to be confused about that. Just 36% correctly identify that it would ban both while 26% think it bans only gay marriage, 10% think it actually legalizes gay marriage, and 27% admit that they don't know what it does.

When voters are informed that the proposed amendment would preclude both marriage and civil unions for gay couples only 38% continue to support it with 46% in opposition. Voters obviously will be more tuned into the amendment debate over the final two weeks of the campaign than they have been to date, particularly as the against side's tv ads hit the air, and it seems quite possible that as voters become more and more informed about the amendment they will continue to move more and more against it.

This much is certain: There was, and is, a long way to go on persuasion. But the Campaign to Protect All NC Families and allies like us at the Courage Campaign (our members made a total of 75,689 calls to voters) were making headway: The number of voters that misunderstood Amendment 1 shrank over time. We just didn't get far enough fast enough.

Why Did Amendment 1 Pass by Such a Large Margin?

The final result -- 61 percent for Amendment 1, and 39 percent against -- was not what many observers, including me, expected. The final three PPP polls had Amendment 1 passing with 55 percent for, 54 percent for, and 55 percent for, respectively. What's more, there were many indications of a possible upset, or at least the margin being much closer. Reasons:

  • President Clinton, considered by many to be the most popular political figure in the state, recording a robocall against Amendment 1, which began airing to hundreds of thousands of voters on Sunday, May 6.

  • There were significant indications that early voting went in our favor, including the fact that 23 percent of early voters were voting for the first time in their primary, indicating young voters (who were overwhelmingly against Amendment 1).
  • A record of ballots (approximately 508,000) were cast during the early voting period, which again was expected to be a boon against Amendment 1, though in reality it indicated higher turnout on both sides of the issue.
  • The Campaign to Protect All NC Families outspent Vote for Marriage NC by over $1 million.
  • There were significant moments in earned media against Amendment 1 during the final several weeks. We've covered them all at Prop 8 Trial Tracker, but among the highlights were House Speaker Thom Tillis admitting that Amendment 1 would probably be repealed in 20 years or so; one of the legislative sponsors of Amendment 1 changing his mind and announcing his plans to vote against Amendment 1 because it goes too far; the "protect the Caucasian race" comments by the wife of a state senator supporting Amendment 1 that made national news; major figures and surrogates like Jim Rogers (the CEO of North-Carolina-based Duke Energy), Cathy Bessant (North-Carolina-headquartered Bank of America's widely respected lead official in the state), the North Carolina Pediatric Society, the North Carolina Psychological Association, the North Carolina State Board of Education, Chelsea Clinton, President Clinton, North Carolina Attorney General Cooper, and even Jason Mraz, Wilco, and other celebrities coming out against Amendment 1 in the final weeks. All of these generated significant earned media around the state and, in some cases, nationally.
  • Unfortunately, it was not enough. The question is why. I spoke to a polling official affiliated with the campaign after the results came in on election night, who had an easy explanation for the 6- to 7-point difference. First, most of the 5 to 6 percent of voters who were undecided swung in favor of Amendment 1 (though many decided to stay home). Second, there was the margin of error on the PPP polls listed above. Third, the increase in turnout among voters for Amendment 1 outdid those against and did not line up with the turnout model used in the polls. Last, and this is my own argument, but studies (most notably Egan's NYU paper) have shown a Bradley effect in polling on same-sex marriage, where voters tend to tell polling firms they would vote for equality when later they cast a vote against it. Add all that up and there's your 6 to 7 points. It may not be that simple, but it helps explain why the final polls were so far off the final result.

    Was Amendment 1 Worth Fighting Against, and What Did We Accomplish?

    The questions many ask themselves after such a resounding loss is whether the initiative was worth fighting against, and what was accomplished by the movement. Both are worthy questions in the pursuit of reflection.

    First, I know I join many in the campaign against Amendment 1 who fought because Amendment 1 took away rights and made people's lives worse, specifically the people who had or may one day obtain domestic partnerships in places like Durham, Carrboro, and other localities around the state that offered them. On election night I stood next to North Carolinian couples who just had their rights forcibly annulled and whose children who may lose their health insurance.

    A word on the importance of this: Here at The Huffington Post journalist Lila Shapiro has a piece examining a split in the gay rights movement. I'm quoted:

    Adam Bink, the director of online programs at the Courage Campaign, a group that has been working to get voters to the polls in recent weeks, says that the movement can't afford to give up on gay couples who don't have the relatively good fortune to live in Minnesota or Maine.

    Said Bink, "I think it's really important that we don't leave any state behind."

    For me and many of the people who gave money, made phone calls, blogged, traveled to North Carolina to get out the vote, and engaged in other actions (along with organizations like HRC, which invested heavily in both money and staff, and its incoming president, Chad Griffin), this wasn't just about marriage -- and for others, if it wasn't, then it wasn't worth spending time on. "Marriage" is the word right now: Winning marriage in more states is sexier than defeating a constitutional amendment banning it in a state where it was already banned. That's the first thing, and, winnability arguments aside, much of the reason that many people who normally care about gay rights didn't care about Amendment 1.

    The second reason is that much of the media, by and large, focused on this as a "marriage" issue, though many journalists, to their credit, correctly noted that it banned any other form of relationship recognition for people of all genders. The problem was that much of the gay rights movement got it wrong: A tiny percentage of people realize that many same-sex couples in North Carolina already have legal recognition for their relationship, and Amendment 1 just took it away. So many took a quick look at this and either misunderstood or outright ignored what else Amendment 1 does. Durham and Carrboro aren't "big cities" like New York or San Francisco. The average person who cares about gay rights probably hasn't been there and will never travel there. But as noted by Charlotte's Matt Comer of Q-Notes, Amendment 1 will now derail ongoing Charlotte city council discussions of extending benefits to same-sex partners of city employees because, well, it's banned. This isn't written to blame anyone but to note that the level of engagement by the gay rights community on Amendment 1, both at an organizational level and at an individual level, was far lower than for other initiatives. It raises a concern about engagement for other "flyover states" where people assume we'll lose because they took a look at a poll, a date on the calendar, and a map... or because they honestly don't really care that much unless it's about winning marriage. Rights for same-sex couples, no matter the label attached to them, matter too, and when couples lost them like they did on Tuesday, that hurts all of us as a movement.

    But even if marriage is your only concern, there's another importance to this. It is critically important to win one or more of the states that are voting this year on same-sex marriage, before the Supreme Court considers the issue sometime in the future. Most legal observers commonly believe the Supreme Court follows the states on many issues, and this one is likely to be no different. We are now still winless on ballot questions over same-sex marriage, having lost over 30 of them. And this year we are now 0/1. And so Amendment 1, like all of these other states, extends beyond domestic partnerships in small(er) towns to a broad impact on our movement for marriage equality.

    On to the question of what we as a movement accomplished by fighting Amendment 1. First, we certainly moved the needle in the state. I shudder to think what the result would have been if people like many of those reading had not put time, money, and other resources into trying to change people's minds on Amendment 1 and marriage generally. Just because the outcome was poor doesn't mean nothing good happened. If, as many expect, a Supreme Court or other court decision striking down laws banning same-sex marriage does not arrive, and a campaign to repeal Amendment 1 is needed in the next two years, four years, or longer, well, then we've done much of the work. Starting from a base of 39 percent, or higher if one considers the potential composition of the electorate in a general election, is not spectacular but also nothing to sneeze at. On a broader scale, the next time a national poll is released showing a slim majority favoring same-sex marriage, we did some of the work to nudge those numbers a bit. And the next time a North Carolinian considers something as personal as the orientation of someone they love, or whether to attend a same-sex couple's wedding, that phone call or door knock or ad may have made just a bit of difference.

    Slowly, we are progressing toward full equality, thanks to everyone who gave, called, traveled, clicked, talked, blogged, and everything else you did to help make that possible.

    A version of this essay appeared on the Courage Campaign Institute's Prop8TrialTracker.com.