Why Marriage Won: Right-Wing Messaging and the 2012 Elections

About David Dodge

David Dodge is the author of the 2013 PRA report, The Right’s Marriage Message, and a contributor to PRA's 2012 Resisting the Rainbow. David has an extensive background in LGBTQ organizing and a Masters of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.
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An anti-marriage equality ad using the "victims" messaging frame.

An anti-marriage equality ad using the “victims” messaging frame.

Before the November 2012 elections, 37 states had voted on statewide ballot measures seeking to restrict marriage equality in this country. Each time, voters in these states—family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers of LGBTQ people—approved the anti-LGBTQ position, often by large margins. Though the LGBTQ community has made significant progress over the last couple of decades in legislatures and courthouses across the country, this persistent losing streak at the ballot box gave anti-LGBTQ advocates a powerful talking point: liberal politicians, judges, and Hollywood celebrities may support same-sex marriage, but the American people do not.

But now, this past Election Day, voters helped make history by approving the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine (51.5%), Maryland (52.4%), and Washington (53.7%) this year, and by rejecting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota (52.56%).

So what happened this year to produce such different results?

In my forthcoming report with Political Research Associates, The Right’s Marriage Message: Marketing Inequality at the Dawn of Marriage Equality, I argue a major part of the previous losing streak was due to how both sides waged their media campaigns. In particular, I argue that opponents of LGBTQ rights such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and Focus on the Family traditionally ran extremely effective media campaigns with the help of right-wing spinmasters. Pro-LGBTQ media campaigns, on the other hand, largely failed to connect with important middle of the road voters.

This year, however, it appears this dynamic has flipped; opponents of same-sex marriage ran surprisingly ineffective media campaigns compared to previous years, while pro-LGBTQ advocates did a much better job winning over the hearts and minds of voters with their ads.  As I suggest below, a range of factors contributed to the victories, including a better ground game and outreach to faith communities, major cultural and political shifts in the national discourse including a sitting president endorsing marriage, and the hospitable territory offered by the four blue states. But this key shift in messaging needs to be part of any story about the big ballot wins of 2012. Our research shows the Right didn’t broadcast as many dark warnings that LGBTQ marriage rights would threaten people’s children as they have in years past as a means to reach socially moderate voters. And, we found, the pro-LGBTQ forces learned from previous defeats. On to the messaging.

***

Somewhat surprisingly, anti-LGBTQ advocates did not run as effective media campaigns as they have in the past. As part of my research for The Right’s Marriage Message, I reviewed television and radio advertisements that ran in statewide LGBTQ-related ballot measures campaigns from 1998 to 2009 to identify the most common and most effective messages used by the Right to convince voters to support anti-LGBTQ positions. All the ballot battles were over marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships except for one Arkansas measure seeking to ban gay adoption.

During this 11-year time period, the most common anti-LGBTQ messaging themes broadcast by conservative groups were the following:

Traditional Marriage: In states where the Christian Right enjoys a large base of support, the groups took to the conservative Christian airwaves to praise the deep roots of traditional marriage as being between a man and a woman, and warned voters that same-sex marriage posed a threat to that tradition. The bulk of all anti-LGBTQ ads—75 percent—featured “traditional marriage” messages.

Harm to Kids: In states with more socially moderate electorates, the Right sought to warn voters of the supposed harm to children that will occur if pro-LGBTQ ballot measures pass, a long-standing messaging tactic dating back to Anita Bryant and California’s Proposition 6 in 1978. Ads particularly focused on the harm coming from teaching about same-sex relationships and sexual behavior in schools. Forty-eight percent of all anti-LGBTQ ads featured “harm to kids” messaging.

Gay Agenda: Many of the ads warned of elites like judges or powerful people from outside the state seeking to advance a “gay agenda” against the will of the people, resonating with right-wing populist arguments on the Right. Forty-two percent of all anti-LGBTQ ads featured “gay agenda” messaging.

Victims: In another attempt to connect with moderate voters concerned about personal and religious freedom, the Right relays stories of how those opposed to same-sex marriage will be discriminated against if same-sex marriage becomes legal.  Ten percent of all anti-LGBTQ ads featured “victims” messaging.

Of these messages, the “harm to kids” theme was particularly prominent in the last couple of election cycles, such as California’s Proposition 8 campaign in 2008 and Maine’s Question 1 campaign in 2009. The most infamous example of this messaging was found in a television advertisement, known as the “Princes” ad, which ran in both English and Spanish during California’s Proposition 8 campaign in 2008.1 The commercial features a conversation between a mother and her young daughter in which the  girl expresses excitement over learning that she can marry a “princess” someday:

Young girl: “Mom, guess what I learned in school today! I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!”


These types of ads were very effective in suggesting to voters that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead public schools to teach children about LGBTQ relationships, which in turn could lead impressionable young children to experiment with same-sex behavior. Moreover, as demonstrated in detail in “The Right’s Marriage Message,” this messaging theme is quite effective at persuading moderate and undecided voters, particularly those with children living at home, to support the Right’s positions. The LGBTQ group Vote for Equality (VFE) conducted an in-depth, multi-year survey project with voters in the Los Angeles area to test the effectiveness of various messaging tactics. An analysis conducted in partnership with VFE found that “kids in schools” messaging had a clear, negative impact on how voters felt about same-sex marriage. For example, 15 percent of all voters became less supportive of same-sex marriage after watching an anti-LGBTQ advertisement featuring “kids in schools” messaging.  Even more telling, 14 percent of all those who initially supported marriage equality lessened their support, while 26 percent of all undecided voters did so.

Given these findings, it is surprising that the Christian Right did not make more use of the “harm to kids” message this electoral season compared to previous years. Of 19 anti-LGBTQ television advertisements that ran in the four states facing LGBTQ ballot measures this year, fewer than half prominently featured “harm to kids” messaging. In contrast, during California’s 2008 campaign and Maine’s Question 1 campaign in 2009, nearly every anti-LGBTQ advertisement warned voters that legalizing same-sex marriage would force public schools to discuss LGBTQ relationship and sexual behavior with children. When they did appear, “harm to children” messages were often a much less prominent feature of the ad than in years past. Minnesota for Marriage’s “Not Live and Let Live” television ad is typical of much of the anti-LGBTQ media developed this year2:

When same-sex marriage has been imposed elsewhere, it has not been live and let live. People who believe marriage is one man and one woman have faced consequences. Small businesses fined, individuals fired, churches sued, charities closed down, same-sex marriage taught to young children in elementary school…


This year, ads such as “Not Live and Let Live” focused on a variety of “consequences” that will befall society as a result of legalizing same-sex marriage. In other words, this year anti-LGBTQ advocates decided to rely much more heavily on the “victims” media theme which warns of the threat to people’s ability to act according to their conscience and religious beliefs if marriage equality passes.

Perhaps anti-LGBTQ advocates felt that warning of the threat to religious freedom would connect with a greater number of voters. “Harm to kids” messaging is most effective with voters with young children living at home. “Victims” media, in contrast, potentially connects with a variety of voters, including small business owners and voters concerned with freedom of religion. It is possible, however, that rather than reach new voters, NOM and its affiliates were hurt by this broadened theme, as the impact of “harm to kids” messaging was somewhat diluted.

The heavy reliance on the “victims” ads should not come as a surprise. NOM said they would begin to emphasize this theme in an internal strategy document released this past April under court order. In one document, NOM outlines a media strategy which it called the “document the victims” project, seeking to highlight the supposed harm that befalls people as a result of legalized LGBTQ relationship recognition:

When a young Michigan grad student gets kicked out of her school program a few weeks before graduation (as happened this spring) because she won’t personally counsel a gay couple on how they can keep their relationship together, we need more than her story—we need her face, her voice, her outrage and her suffering on camera.

In setting out this strategy, NOM hoped to co-opt and neutralize pro-LGBTQ charges that anti-LGBTQ positions are homophobic or discriminatory. This tactic is part of a long lineage of the Right’s freedom of religion argument, which it uses to oppose local and state nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity.3  The Right paints those who hold anti-same-sex marriage views as “victims” of religious persecution, contending that churches would be required to conduct same-sex marriages were the practice to become legal.  This language has expanded to include faith-based non-profits in the last few years, and grown wider in scope so that now the Right warns that individuals’ beliefs regarding sexual orientation—as with contraception—are the target of state-based religious persecution.

The “victims” strategy was readily apparent in television advertisements developed this year. While only 10 percent of the advertisements that ran from 1998 to 2009 prominently featured this theme, this year, roughly half of the ads did so. For example, the following is an excerpt from an ad ran by Protect Marriage Maine this year, which features a couple, Jim and Mary O’Reilly, who own a small business:

A lesbian couple sued us for not supporting their gay wedding because of our Christian beliefs. We had to pay thirty thousand dollars and can no longer host any weddings at our inn.

Similar ads highlight other instances where those opposed to marriage equality have been “victimized” for their beliefs, such as the backlash against the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A earlier this year when the company’s President, Dan Cathy, took a stand against marriage equality. Given the results of this year’s election, anti-LGBTQ advocates might have been better served inundating voters with the “harm to kids” messaging as they have in recent electoral cycles.

NOM’s internal documents also revealed a strategy, much covered in the media earlier this year, to develop anti-LGBTQ media that directly appeals to racial minorities.  In particular, NOM sought to inflame tensions among those in the African-American community who take issue with characterizing  LGBTQ equality as a civil rights concern. NOM sought to “find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”4

Of the states facing ballot measures this year, this strategy was really only potentially viable in Maryland, where 30 percent of the population identifies as African American, well above the national average of 13.1 percent. For example, Protect Marriage Maryland worked closely with Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. on reaching out to African Americans in Maryland. Jackson is the senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, and is the founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, a socially conservative nonprofit opposed to LGBTQ marriages.5 This group, which is closely aligned organizationally with NOM, already actively opposed marriage equality in Florida and the District of Columbia, also home to very racially and ethnically diverse electorates. Similarly, Emmett Burns, Jr., an African American Democratic delegate from Baltimore, is an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage, and actively sought to drum up support for the anti-LGBTQ amendment in Maryland this November among other Democratic African Americans. Yet other black clergy stepped up in defense of the ballot measure, along with the NAACP.

Overall, NOM’s strategy to use same-sex marriage as a “wedge” issue between the African American and LGBTQ communities failed to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. This isn’t to say, however, that NOM had zero impact in this area. In late September, the Baltimore Sun produced a poll showing African American support for same-sex marriage above 50 percent. By mid-October, once Protect Marriage Maryland began deploying its spokespeople and airing television advertisements targeting racial minorities, the newspaper put support among African Americans around 42 percent.6 Though NOM’s advertising likely contributed to the dip in these numbers, the change in the polls also likely reflects a simple tightening of the race. The Baltimore Sun’s September poll, for example, put support for same-sex marriage 10 percentage points above the opposition among all voters, a lead no one on either side of the race expected LGBQT advocates to maintain.

Still, come Election Day, African Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage by 46 percent according to Maryland exit polls. Moreover, according to national exit polls, African Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage in their state by 51 percent, even greater than whites, 47 percent of whom supported legalization.7 While NOM’s race-baiting messaging strategy may have had some limited impact on support for marriage equality within communities of color in Maryland, ultimately it was not enough to prevent passage of marriage equality in the state. This does not mean that NOM won’t persist or find greater  success  with this strategy in more socially conservative and religious states.

While anti-LGBTQ campaigners stumbled in their attempt to connect with voters this year, pro-LGBTQ advocates have started to get it right. This year, LGBTQ rights campaigners successfully avoided some of the traps faced by pro-LGBTQ messaging in previous ballot campaigns. Based on a review of television and radio advertisements, the following were the two most prominent messages used by pro-LGBTQ groups during statewide ballot measure campaigns from 1998 to 2009:

Rights-Based: Of the pro-LGBTQ media reviewed, 61 percent contained “rights-based” media messaging, which sought to convey to voters that LGBTQ families are discriminated against and denied basic rights and protections.

Avoidance-Based
: Another prominent messaging tactic employed by pro-LGBTQ advocates is to reframe the issue away from one concerning the LGBTQ community. This “avoidance-based” messaging strategy reflects an assumption that voters will not connect with, or be persuaded by, media that prominently features LGBTQ individuals and their stories so it brings up domestic violence or some other surrogate issue. Of all pro-LGBTQ media reviewed for this research, 43 percent contained an “avoidance-based” media theme.

Previous research shows that “rights-based” messaging effectively saturated much of the public’s thinking towards same-sex marriage. For example, in 2010, the organizations Third Way and Basic Rights Oregon conducted research into how heterosexual couples in the state saw topics related to marriage. When asked why LGBTQ couples would want to get married, 42 percent responded for “rights” and “benefits.” However, when asked why “couples like you” would want to get married, 72 percent of respondents said to “publicly acknowledge” their “love and commitment” for each other.8 In essence, pro-LGBTQ advocates have been communicating to voters that LGBTQ couples want to get married for different reasons than their heterosexual peers. As a result, voters are often confused why other forms of relationship recognition that provide legal protections, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, aren’t enough.

Another common pro-LGBTQ messaging theme seeks to reframe the issue away from one concerning the LGBTQ community to a surrogate issue. Rather than directly engage in the debate concerning rights for LGBTQ couples, most of these ads do not attempt to persuade voters to support relationship recognition for LGBTQ couples.9 An example of this avoidance-based messaging tactic was aired in North Carolina. The ad suggested that anti-LGBTQ ballot initiatives would not only hurt LGBTQ individuals, but unmarried heterosexual survivors of domestic violence as well depending on court rulings.

Encouragingly, this year, pro-LGBTQ advocates largely abandoned the “rights-based” and “avoidance-based” themes in favor of one that is strongly pro-LGBTQ. They stressed how LGBTQ couples and their families are affected–on an emotional level–due to their inability to marry.  For example, the following is an excerpt from an ad that ran in Maine, featuring a couple, Cathy and Phil Curtis:

Phil: We have three daughters. Our youngest, Katie, is gay.

Cathy: People will ask, ‘why wouldn’t a civil union be enough for her?’ When we were young, we never dreamed about having a civil union, or signing a piece of paper. We wanted to be married.

Phil: I want our Katie to have what we have, the joy and security of marriage

Cathy: A civil union is no substitute for marriage. We know that in our hearts.

This more emotionally resonant message connects well with voters. It moves beyond the limitations of “rights-based” messaging by describing marriage as an important cultural tradition, one that serves as a signal in society of the level of commitment that exists between two people. Encouragingly, this more resonant, LGBTQ-inclusive messaging strategy was dominant in all four states facing ballot measures this year.

***

While these changes in messaging strategy on the part of both anti- and pro-LGBTQ advocates were noteworthy and no doubt contributed to the pro-LGBTQ electoral sweep of ballot campaigns this year, it’s important to remember that these were still close, competitive campaigns, with many factors at play. It would be shortsighted, in other words, not to account for several other important elements of these wins.

For instance, these four ballot measure campaigns all took place in liberal-leaning “blue” states. This is not to downplay the importance of these victories: given the LGBTQ community’s long-running losing streak at the ballot box, winning the support of a majority of voters in any state marks a turning point. We have, after all, lost in plenty of other liberal-leaning states, such as California, Maine and Oregon. Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates likely owe their victory in part to the friendly electoral terrain in which these campaigns took place. In the years to come, when the fight for LGBTQ relationship recognition moves to less hospitable territory, electoral victories will be harder to come by.

Also, this year, arguably more than any other, we witnessed several major cultural and political shifts in the national discourse on same-sex marriage thanks to years of dedicated organizing by LGBTQ advocates. Through the previous year, a wave of important political voices spoke out in favor of marriage equality. Most notably, for the first time in history, a sitting president, Barack Obama, endorsed marriage equality. Unlike nearly every previous LGBTQ-related ballot measure campaign, moreover, the Governors in three of the four states facing measures this year were vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. In Maryland, Governor Martin O’Malley even named the legalization of gay marriage as one of his top legislative priorities.  In another historic shift, the board of the NAACP, the prominent civil rights organization, voted for the first time to support same-sex marriage. These high profile endorsements no doubt played to the advantage of LGBTQ advocates, helping shore up support from a growing chorus of prominent political voices.

On the flip side, there was also a notable silence from high-level political voices on the Right in the campaign against marriage equality this electoral season. This is not to say that opposition did not exist: Mitt Romney stated his opposition to same-sex marriage early and often throughout his campaign, and like many conservative Republicans, has voiced support for a federal marriage amendment banning same-sex marriage nationally. However, unlike the campaign to reelect George W. Bush in 2004, in which the right-wing proposed a litany of anti-LGBTQ ballot measures partly as a means to turnout Christian conservatives to the polls, Romney’s campaign did not go out of its way to bring up his opposition to same-sex marriage. This reflects a clear shift in the use of same-sex marriage as a “wedge” issue, at least in national presidential politics. While support for same-sex marriage was once universally seen as a political liability, vocal opposition to LGBTQ rights is increasingly seen as such.

Additionally, in comparison to previous years, pro-LGBTQ advocates improved their fieldwork in advance of November’s elections. This is particularly true in Maine, where advocates conducted intensive door-to-door canvassing and phone banking throughout the electoral season. This type of one-on-one contact with voters is extremely effective in persuading them to support pro-LGBTQ positions, but it is a tactic previously underused in LGBTQ-related ballot measure campaigns. For example, despite the high profile nature of the campaigns, very little field work occurred in California in 2008 or in Maine in 2009. According to a web advertisement released by the lead pro-LGBTQ campaign committee, Mainers United for Marriage, volunteers knocked on 110,000 doors, made 125,000 phone calls and held 62,000 conversations with Maine voters about same-sex marriage in preparation for the November vote. Having lost in 2009 by just over 33,000 votes, these face-to-face conversations likely helped tip the balance in favor of marriage equality in Maine. Similarly, unlike years past, the pro-LGBTQ campaigns ensured outreach to faith communities was a significant part of the field campaigns. This is particularly seen as an improvement over California’s 2008 Proposition 8 campaign, where critics contend far less was done to involve faith communities.

Lastly, as anti-LGBTQ advocates have been quick to point out in the wake of their defeat, pro-LGBTQ advocates held a large fundraising advantage this year. In an attempt to rationalize their losses this year, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, released a statement the day after the election bemoaning the group’s fundraising disadvantage this electoral season, claiming to have been “heavily outspent, by a margin of at least four-to-one.”10  The clearest example of this advantage was in Washington, where the primary pro-LGBTQ campaign committee, Washington United for Marriage, raised over $12 million, aided by large donations from corporate donors such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, while the main anti-LGBTQ campaign committee, Preserve Marriage Washington, brought it just over $2.6 million.

There is no question that the ability of LGBTQ advocates to outpace their opponents in fundraising likely contributed in some way to the victories this year. More resources translate into more television advertisements, larger ad buys, and more extensive field campaigns; in sum, more voters reached. However, this fundraising advantage is nothing new. Pro-LGBTQ advocates have out-fundraised their opponents in all but seven of the last thirty-six statewide ballot measure campaigns that have occurred since 2004, yet we have lost in the vast majority of those cases. While our fundraising advantage clearly helped, therefore, it only did so in concert with the other factors working in favor of pro-LGBTQ advocates this year.

***
Fresh off electoral victories this year, it will be important for LGBTQ advocates not to become complacent in preparing for future campaigns. While this election will likely be looked back upon as a turning point for the marriage equality movement, it is important to remember that none of these victories were won in a landslide. These campaigns were truly competitive, despite taking place in perhaps the most favorable political climate ever for LGBTQ advocates. So we should celebrate these victories this year, but keep an eye to the future when LGBTQ advocates may be working under less hospitable conditions.

NOM and its right-wing affiliates will not concede future battles simply because they are unaccustomed to electoral defeat. Rather, these groups will learn from their mistakes in order to prepare for future campaigns, several of which are just around the corner. Indiana voters may be asked whether to adopt a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage as early as 2013, and the following year, in 2014, Oregon voters are likely to face a measure seeking repeal of that state’s marriage ban.  In preparation for these fights, Brian Brown, NOM’s president, recently called upon supporters to help the group raise $30 million in the coming year.11 The group will also likely continue developing messages to appeal to the broadest base of voters possible. NOM may revert back to “harm to kids” messaging in the coming elections, for example, or continue tweaking its “victims”-religious liberty media theme to be more targeted to undecided and persuadable voters. In the next couple of years, however, most of the upcoming state battles surrounding issues of LGBTQ equality will be taking place in courthouses and legislatures, rather than at the ballot box. In March, all eyes will turn to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments related to challenges to California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. While the outcome is unclear, we know high court intervention throughout history has played a vital role in securing rights for minorities.

Advocates in a handful of states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have also already announced their intentions of pursuing same-sex marriage bills in the next year or two. Here, NOM is likely to respond to pro-equality efforts by threatening to unseat politicians and judges, particularly Republicans and moderate Democrats, who support pro-LGBTQ legislation and court cases, thus intimidating others who might otherwise consider supporting such measures. The group has already found success with this strategy. In 2010, NOM successfully unseated three State Supreme Court judges in Iowa who ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. Though NOM failed to unseat a fourth pro-equality judge in Iowa this year, the group did successfully unseat several Republicans in New York’s State Senate that supported marriage equality in the state in 2011.

Regardless of the political arena, LGBTQ advocates and allies will no doubt continue learning from and improving upon the factors that contributed to the 2012 successes. We should continue rejecting “avoidance-based” media in favor of messages that are thoroughly pro-LGBTQ. Pro-equality community organizations should continue learning from the important field work by groups like Vote for Equality, and dispel anti-LGBTQ sentiment by speaking one-on-one with voters on an ongoing basis, regardless of whether it is an election year. This work, changing hearts and minds one person at a time, will ultimately be what advances the LGBTQ rights movement in all 50 states.

Research support for this article was provided by Alex Zadel.



1 “It’s Already Happened,” VoteYesonProp8, YouTube, October 7, 2008.
2 “Not Live and Let Live,” MNforMarriage, YouTube, October 18, 2012.
3 Amy Stone, “The New Religious Freedom Argument: Gay Marriage in the 2012 Election,” Public Eye, Fall 2012.
4 National Organization for Marriage, “National Strategy for Winning the Marriage Battle,” December 15, 2009.
5 High Impact Leadership Coalition, “About HILC.” Also see Peter Montgomery, “The Two Faces of Maryland’s Anti-Equality Campaign,” Religion Dispatches, October 22, 2012.
6 Erin Cox and Candy Thomson, “Gambling, gay marriage and presidential race draw long lines to polls,” the Baltimore Sun, November 6, 2012.
7 Anugrah Kumar, “Polls Show Sudden Increase in black Support for Gay Marriage,” Christian Post, November 10, 2012. 
8 The Third Way, “Why Marriage Matters: The Research Behind the Message.”
9 “Oppose Amendment 2-Missouri Gay Marriage Ban,” Erojas2001, YouTube, January 19, 2007.
10 “National Organization for Marriage: We Are Not Defeated in Our Fight for Traditional Marriage,” NOM Blog, November 7, 2012.
11 Edith Honan, “In U.S. fight over gay marriage, both sides gearing up for more battles,” Reuters, November 28, 2012.

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