Winning at the Ballot

Through hard work and many ups and downs, we learned how to win marriage in the courts, in the legislatures, in the heartland as well as the coasts, and with Republicans as well as Democrats…but heading into 2012, the one barrier we had not yet overcome was winning an up-or-down vote of the public on a marriage-related ballot measure. Figuring out how to do this was the primary task Freedom to Marry set for itself after the pivotal 2011 win in New York. With sharp analysis and critical strategic overhauls led by Freedom to Marry, as well as on-the-ground work and organizing in key battleground states, the movement resoundingly transformed the political momentum and narrative by winning four out of four ballot campaigns in the 2012 election. This resource takes a look inside the marriage ballot campaigns, reveals lessons learned from each, and demonstrates how social movements can successfully turn the tide by persuading the American people to support their mission. 

Hard Losses at the Ballot – and the Need for a Change

Beginning with the historic Hawaii marriage case in the early 1990s and throughout the 2000s, opponents of the freedom to marry resorted to a radical tactic, seeking to forestall our ability to succeed through the normal political and legal process by passing ballot measures that cemented discrimination into state constitutions, adding an additional layer of discrimination and preventing legislatures and courts from treating gay people equally under the law. The breakthrough in Hawaii was blocked by the first of these attacks, and in one year alone, 2004, a presidential election year, Karl Rove on behalf of the Bush campaign, in cahoots with anti-gay organizations, pushed anti-gay, anti-marriage measures in 13 states. Our opponents aimed to use these measures to further stigmatize gay couples and shut down the conversation around the freedom to marry, galvanize support among social conservatives during key elections and increase voter turnout. By 2009, our movement had lost every one of the 30 statewide ballot campaigns that resulted in anti-marriage constitutional amendments – and most had passed in states where the marriage conversation had barely begun. 

Freedom to Marry knew how vital it was to address the challenges associated with these campaigns head-on before marriage was put on a ballot again.

Losses in California (the infamous “Prop 8”) in 2008, and in Maine in 2009  were particularly painful, and opponents of the freedom to marry taunted advocates again and again that we could never win a vote of the people. Freedom to Marry knew how vital it was to address the challenges associated with these campaigns head-on before marriage was put on a ballot again. 

Polling on marriage illustrated consistently that the country was divided into three groups: About 30% strongly supported equality for gay people, and somewhat less than 30% were entirely opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. But the rest included the reachable – but not yet reached – middle, about 40% of voters overall. These “middle voters” were conflicted. Most of them knew people who were gay or lesbian. However, they were unclear on why marriage was important to the couples they knew. While we had grown support from 27% at the time of the epic Hawaii trial in 1996 to a fragile majority by 2010 – a significant progress – it wasn’t enough; to solidify our majority for marriage, we needed the next swath of voters.

How It Happened

Coming Together to Turn the Tide

Take a look at the need for the messaging overhaul in context – and what else was happening in the movement at the time – with our "How It Happened" history of the freedom to marry.

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The marriage movement had not provided these reachable-but-not-yet-reached voters what they needed to change their minds. Beyond that, our campaigns were highly vulnerable to the opposition’s diversionary attacks, such as the unfounded but emotive claim that that same-sex couples marrying would harm children. From messaging to message delivery, from organizing to fundraising, we needed to up our game if we were going to overcome the barrier of winning at the ballot.

Testing – and Overhauling – the Message

Beginning in 2010, Freedom to Marry developed a plan for confronting and solving these challenges. Freedom to Marry’s Director of Public Engagement, Thalia Zepatos, a longtime strategist in progressive politics, enlisted pollster Lisa Grove to dive into and analyze existing research data – more than 85 sets – from state marriage campaigns. More broadly, Zepatos oversaw the coordination of a confidential research collaborative, the Marriage Research Consortium, with state and national partners like the Movement Advancement Project, Basic Rights Oregon, and Third Way coming together to understand better messaging practices. 

Through intensive message testing, Freedom to Marry and our national and state partners uncovered a key disconnect between the marriage movement's message and what resonated with voters.

Through intensive message testing, Freedom to Marry and our national and state partners uncovered a key disconnect between the marriage movement's message and what resonated with voters.

The takeaway was clear: In talking so much about the legal consequences of being denied the freedom to marry, the movement was failing to connect with a significant slice of people. These people agreed in theory that gay people should not be treated unfairly – but they didn’t understand the importance of marriage to same-sex couples. 

The research made clear that what was needed was an emphasis on the love and commitment that same-sex couples share – and the idea that these couples want to marry for the same reasons as different-sex couples. Gay people didn’t want to redefine marriage, the messaging made clear; they wanted to join it. To convince voters to “take another look” at marriage, we  reminded them of basic moral values like the Golden Rule – treating others the way that you would like to be treated. These were the messages that moved “middle” voters, and we believed that these were the messages needed to win at the ballot. We needed to be disciplined in order that other equally valid parts of our message didn’t get in the way of what these “middle” voters needed to hear.

Pairing New Messages with Strategic Campaigns – and Winning

The first big public test of this rigorous work was in 2012, when the freedom to marry was set for a ballot vote in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. 

Growing Public Support

Why Marriage Matters: Getting the Movement on Message

Read a deeper dive into the messaging challenges and the outcome of the project, Why Marriage Matters.

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Of course, winning required more than strong messaging points; the movement also needed to organize more effectively than ever. Coalition efforts similar to the New Yorkers United for Marriage model were coordinated in each of the states, joint efforts between national and state organizations, including Freedom to Marry, the Gill Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, the American Unity Fund, the leading state equality group, and others. Freedom to Marry had been vetting and briefing a cohort of political consultants and operatives, who were prepared to engage with state campaigns.  A talented campaign manager, backed with an integrated campaign board and significant fundraising muscle, led each coalition – and coordination among the four campaigns was vital. With coordination, the campaigns pulled from Freedom to Marry’s centralized messaging, opposition research, political and legal advice, and digital best practices – and were able to share and trade communications and field strategies among each other. Legions of volunteers, field staffers, phone bankers, donors, and online organizers left an enormous impact when the marriage campaigns defied “standard operating practice” and engaged in lengthy, interactive conversations with voters.

Outspending opponents was key to the marriage campaigns’ successes: By raising early money, the campaigns were able to get TV ads into living rooms, set the terms of the debate, and ensure lower rates for air time throughout the campaign.

Richard Carlbom celebrating the 2012 defeat of an anti-marriage amendment in Minnesota.

Minnesotans United Campaign Manager Richard Carlbom celebrates on Election Night 2012. Watch the full video.

Operating as the central font of knowledge and best practices as well as a funding arm, Freedom to Marry invested more than $5 million directly into these four campaigns, becoming the largest out-of-state funder in three of the four, and the largest marriage funder in the country. 

On November 6, 2012, marriage supporters at last turned the corner on years of ballot losses, sweeping the table in four distinct regions of the United States and vindicating the movement’s hard work to learn how to build campaigns and persuade a majority to vote against discrimination targeting a small minority. 

Overall Lessons Learned

  • Lay the groundwork for a ballot fight early: When a popular vote was required to reverse a constitutional amendment or to preserve a win in a state legislature, we found it critical that the persuasion work begin early. Two to three years before the vote in several states, we implemented a 501(c)(3) public education campaign using our Why Marriage Matters campaign tools to lay a solid foundation of support, using earned media story placement, enlisting “grasstops” leaders to serve as messengers, launching field-based conversation campaigns, and in some cases placing paid media. The public education groundwork allowed us to swiftly pivot to a robust, well-resources, tightly structured campaign.
  • Tackle the core question head-on: In the early 2000s, much of the organizing and message work designed to defeat opponents’ talking points skirted discussion of the freedom to marry and looked to direct people to other reasons to vote against discrimination. Polling showed that voters were “uncomfortable” discussing issues related to LBGT people, so instead of trying to educate and increase the public’s comfort level, campaign messages often deflected with “easier” messages such as, “It’s wrong to amend the Constitution to take away people’s rights,” or attempted to show that amendments that also prohibited civil union or domestic partnership would hurt different-sex couples, too. The mistake here was that the pro-marriage campaigns often weren’t talking directly about the concrete question at hand: marriage for gay people. Our campaigns failed to answer the questions uppermost in the minds of the voters. Beyond the fact that these fights led to the passage of constitutional amendments, the lack of engagement on marriage was also a missed opportunity for strong public education work around why marriage matters. The ballot fights were a concrete, specific occasion to begin the conversation around the freedom to marry, laying the groundwork for a future fight. With a broader vision, even in states where we were likely to lose, the movement could have used these opportunities to “lose forward” and move the needle a bit in our favor. 

Messaging and Media Lessons Learned

  • Adjust your messaging and fix what’s not resonating: The work in 2010 and 2011 to overhaul the messaging behind the freedom to marry and move it away from abstract ideas like liberty, non-discrimination, and protecting the Constitution was an essential part of the work to win. Deep-dive research demonstrated how these messages simply weren’t resonating in an emotional way. By taking on the extensive research and rethinking about how to talk about marriage to voters, the movement was able to shift the conversation and show why same-sex couples wanted to marry. Advertising campaigns began to feature same-sex couples, their parents, and their children discussing why marriage was so important, catapulting same-sex couples and their families into the conversation like never before. 
  • Lock in paid media as early as possible: Strong paid media, using research-based messaging throughout to combat opponents’ arguments and state your case to a broad base of voters, is vital – and as Election Day draws nearer, rates climb. In order to avoid sky-high advertising costs, purchase TV time or print advertisements early. Focusing on fundraising and securing space early helps lock in the most affordable rates and enables a large enough purchase to ensure you’re breaking through. 
  • Respond immediately to opposition attacks: Fear-based attacks have a way of capturing voters’ attention – so when opponents take to the airwaves with damaging, distorted messages, it’s vital to immediately push back. Fact-checking, calling out lies, and exposing misinformation can go a long way. The Washington campaign debuted a “Check the Facts” web site which instantly scrutinized opposition ads and provided factual rebuttals to spurious claims. Freedom to Marry assisted all four 2012 state campaigns to be prepared with pushback ads, based on anticipated attacks from the opposing campaign.  
  • Target your messages and hone in on the right audience: Through earned and paid media, there are many ways to keep your campaign in the public consciousness and ensure that voters are aware of your issue – and given sufficient time to become supporters. Offer voters many different entry points with which to connect with the campaign – and target the right entry points to the right voters. These targeted approaches to reaching specific audiences of voters – Republicans, people of color, labor, and others, depending on the state – allow your campaign to make the case to the most persuadable voters using the most persuasive approaches. 

Field Organizing Lessons Learned

Freedom to Marry's Thomas Wheatley helped organize hundreds of canvassers for door-to-door conversations all across Washington in 2012.

Freedom to Marry's Thomas Wheatley helped organize hundreds canvassers for door-to-door conversations all across Washington in 2012.

  • Build a field team ready to tackle a statewide fight: More than legislative campaigns – where the goal is to influence a small number of high-power legislators – ballot fights are about influencing the largest possible number of voters. That requires a robust field campaign knocking on doors and connecting with voters over the phone and on social media. These one-to-one conversations at the door and over the phone require a strong field team with multiple offices around the state, who are then on hand to shift to a “get out the vote” effort for Election Day. Be sure to focus on the important work first. All organizers meet volunteers who love sign holding, rallies, yard signs, fliers and hosting events. However, this usually didn’t align with the core, targeted voter outreach and persuasion needed to win. For the most part, marriage field campaigns carefully targeted voters and focused relentlessly on the most effective ways to persuade them and/or get them to the polls. 
  • Think big when it comes to volunteer organizers:  For the 2012 marriage campaigns, it was important to remember that the teams would grow exponentially, rather than in a linear manner. The base of volunteer organizers grew in key moments of expected expansion, with a large influx of first-time volunteers after strong recruiting events, like Pride celebrations. Organizers hosted rallies and kick-offs to the different phases of the campaigns to grow excitement and provide an easy entry points to new volunteers. Early in the campaign, goals were kept modest, with aims to surpass them every time. By the end of the campaign, thinking big and setting ambitious goals helped to motivate teams and provide energy and emphasis for the campaign.  Laying out ambitious goals and setting benchmarks for success helped us turn a broad-based movement into record-setting numbers of active volunteers on marriage campaigns.
  • Invest the necessary time in training volunteer leadership: The record numbers of volunteers who cared passionately and were willing to give generously of their time to the marriage campaigns were an incredible asset. However, our 2012 campaigns had to be smart and effective at building leadership teams to help manage the influx of new volunteers, especially those that would arrive within the weeks before the election.  Leadership ladders, which listed different leadership roles and increasing opportunities to take responsibility in the field work, were found on the walls of every campaign office. Trainings of trainers, lead trainings, and expert actions were regular occurrences.  Lead volunteers were treated like staff, joining staff calls, giving input and taking on large areas of responsibility for the campaign. Marriage campaigns regularly asked committed volunteers to leave their jobs, postpone other commitments and volunteer full-time – even without pay – and a large number of activists were willing to make those sacrifices.  
  • Use field for fundraising: It’s wrong to see field campaigns as “money-spending” when field events – canvass trainings, mass mobilizations, and other events also create opportunities to ask volunteers to donate. Marriage campaigns also found that volunteers were willing to donate – and that request was typically made at the end of their volunteer shift while debriefing their experience and signing them up for a subsequent shift.  Campaign volunteers gave generously, and participated in “friends and family” phone banks, and field campaigns provided the majority of small donors to the campaign. 
Field was a critical component of the Maine marriage campaign in 2012.

A strong field program – with an emphasis on one-to-one conversations – was a critical component of the Maine marriage campaign in 2012. Read more about the pioneering persuasion work here.

  • Conversations work – but can take time:  Some of our success came from ditching conventional campaign wisdom. We found that interactive conversations—although lengthy—were valuable tools of persuasion.  Rather than training canvassers to read a pre-written statement, asking for agreement or disagreement, our movement developed long-form persuasion conversations, where canvassers asked the voter the underlying reasons behind their conflict, shared positive values and personal stories to connect, as an effective way to move the voter to be more supportive. However, the investment in training canvassers (volunteer or paid), and the time it takes to actually have these conversations, make this a tool that is challenging to bring to scale in statewide elections.   
  • Strengthen support among weak supporters: Our data showed that weak supporters—who may know someone who is gay but never talked about marriage also needed to be reached. Finding ways for these conversations to happen outside of the formal campaign, whether at house parties, in churches or in one-on-one friends and family conversations, can help reach thousands of voters, even though not all of these interactions can be tracked.  “Talking about Marriage” trainings can help volunteers gain the courage and skill to engage with their family members and friends.  Conversations with a significant number of supporters who were weak and/or vulnerable to opponent messages were probably the most important conversations: Weak supporters were asked to vocalize their support for the freedom to marry; this ensured they stayed in support through Election Day. 
  • Make your message authentic, and emphasize the part that the people you need to reach need to hear: And remember: don’t just invest in message; invest in deploying the right messengers and drumming and sustaining your message delivery.