The Right's New Same-Sex Marriage Messaging: Why They Lost in 2012

Instead of warning that same-sex marriage would lead to the brainwashing of children, the right chose to emphasize a different message: that the legalization of same-sex marriage would effectively silence its opponents, barring them from acting on sincerely held religious beliefs.
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In 2008, millions of California voters saw this scene play out on their television screens: A young mother is working away in the kitchen as her little daughter comes home from school. Brandishing a copy of the gay-themed children's book King & King, the child excitedly tells her mother: "Mom! Guess what I learned in school today! I learned that a prince can marry a prince, and I can marry a princess!" The mother's reaction turns to horror, then consternation, as a narrator warns that this will happen in schools across the state should same-sex marriage remain legal. This commercial -- the "Princes" ad -- was by far one of the most controversial, and most effective, ads run by the religious right-backed "Yes on 8" campaign in their successful 2008 effort to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in California. A study conducted with data collected by Vote for Equality (VFE) showed that a remarkable 15 percent of all voters became less supportive of marriage equality after viewing the ad, including a whopping 26 percent of all undecided voters.

One would expect that the right would reuse this successful message, peddling the misleading implication that legalizing same-sex marriage would force public schools to discuss LGBTQ relationship and sexual behavior with children. And so they did, most prominently in Maine's similarly successful "Yes on 1" campaign, which in 2009 convinced a majority of the state's voters to reject the state's recently passed same-sex marriage law. But in the 2012 election, when Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington had marriage referenda on the ballot, voters in all four heard a very different message from the right -- one which failed to resonate with voters, leading to long-hoped-for victories for marriage equality in all four states.

Instead of warning that same-sex marriage would lead to the brainwashing of children, the right chose to emphasize a different message: that the legalization of same-sex marriage would effectively silence its opponents, barring them from acting on sincerely held religious beliefs. A typical ad run by Protect Marriage Maine featured a couple, Jim and Mary O'Reilly, owners of the Wildflower Inn in Vermont, claiming that they were barred from holding weddings as a consequence of marriage equality: "A lesbian couple sued us for not supporting their gay wedding because of our Christian beliefs. We had to pay $30,000 and can no longer host any weddings at our inn." This was, of course, completely disingenuous. The O'Reillys voluntarily decided to stop hosting weddings, rather than to comply with an existing Vermont law that barred businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The passage of marriage equality in the state had nothing to do with it.

But by distorting the facts, the right, led by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) was adopting what they thought was a clever tactic -- turning marriage equality advocates' rhetoric about freedom from discrimination against them, by painting them as anti-religious bigots. And from monitoring the airwaves, it was clear that the right thought they had struck anti-equality gold. Out of 19 anti-LGBTQ television advertisements that ran in the four states facing marriage equality ballot measures this year, fewer than half prominently featured "harm to kids" messaging along the lines of the infamous "Princes" ad, compared to California's 2008 campaign and Maine's "Question 1" campaign in 2009, in which nearly every anti-equality advertisement featured that message. In 2012, nearly half of the ads instead made the "victimhood" argument. But as the outcomes of these four ballot measures made clear, voters were not convinced.

This was not the only shift in tactics or messaging from the right. In Maryland in particular, they sought to use same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to divide the African-American and LGBTQ communities, finding African-American spokespeople who were highly critical of the framing of marriage equality as a civil rights issue. While African-American support for marriage dropped over the course of the campaign, possibly pointing to limited success for the wedge tactic, it was not enough to win Maryland, as NOM and its allies had no doubt hoped.

Even as the right shifted away from the messages that had been so successful in years past, marriage equality advocates were learning from their past mistakes. In previous years, many pro-LGBTQ campaigns had run "de-gayed" advertisements, which deemphasized images of LGBTQ people, instead making abstract arguments based on "rights" -- or even avoiding LGBTQ issues entirely, by focusing on the harm marriage bans would cause to straight couples in domestic partnerships. This year, marriage equality campaigns stressed how LGBTQ couples and their families are affected-on an emotional level-due to their inability to marry. A typical Maine ad featured the parents of a lesbian daughter stating: "A civil union is no substitute for marriage. We know that in our hearts."

Beyond advertising, marriage equality supporters reaped the benefits of several new advantages. Their fieldwork was far more effective (in Maine alone, they conducted more than 60,000 face-to-face conversations with voters); they conducted more outreach to religious communities; and they saw an overall cultural shift in support of marriage equality, with a sitting U.S. president and three of the four governors of the states in question coming out strongly in support of same-sex marriage.

These pro-LGBTQ campaigns were learning from their opponents. They were running and conducting canvassing that went straight for viewers' hearts -- something that for too long had been the province of the right, as marriage equality supporters instead made their case in more abstract or intellectual terms. And they reaped the rewards at the ballot box.

There is no question that the victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington offer marriage equality supporters models for the battles to come. But there is also no question that they must not risk complacency. Just as pro-LGBTQ campaigns learned from their mistakes, so can NOM and its allies. It is likely that they will return to the successful "harm to kids" message, and also likely that future battles at the ballot box will be fought outside blue states -- meaning less favorable terrain for the pro-equality side.

But after years of defeat, 2012's victories for marriage equality have proven that these battles can be won. Pro-LGBTQ advocates would do well to heed the important lesson: that the most important way to win over voters is by changing both their hearts and their minds.

David Dodge, author of Political Research Associates (PRA)'s new report "The Right's Marriage Message," is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he worked as the Program Assistant for the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program. Listen to him discuss the new report here. He previously contributed to PRA's report "Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBT Gains."

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