This article by Marc Solomon was originally published on November 28, 2014 in Salon. Read the full article here.
Excerpted from Winning Marriage.
One of the biggest challenges we were up against in getting the president to move was the conventional wisdom that coming out in support was still politically perilous. For some time now, national polls were showing support for the freedom to marry at greater than 50 percent. Yet shifting the conventional wisdom in D.C. is hard.
To help us with this task, we sought to line up a bipartisan dream team of pollsters. We needed validators who were respected enough by those on both sides of the aisle that they would draw the attention of political journalists, pundits, and ultimately the Obama campaign. We reached out to Joel Benenson, the Obama campaign’s lead pollster, and Jan van Lohuizen, the lead pollster for George W. Bush, asking them to analyze trends on the freedom to marry and write a joint memo that we’d release to the press. I honestly didn’t think either would say yes, given the public role we were asking them to play. But they both agreed. They’d evaluate publicly available polling since the late 1990s and write a memo on their findings.
On Wednesday, July 27, Benenson and van Lohuizen presented their findings to assembled media at the National Press Club, with Evan Wolfson providing context and talking about the path forward. The pollsters highlighted the fact that growth in support of this cause was historically remarkable; neither had seen support grow like this, from 27 percent in 1996 to a solid majority in 2011, on any other social issue. And, they argued, this wasn’t just a phenomenon of younger voters overwhelmingly supporting the freedom to marry. It also reflected a reevaluation by voters in nearly every cross-section of society they’d looked at: Democrats, Independents, and Republicans; people at all age levels; people in most religions; and so on.
They debunked the idea that our opponents would be more motivated to go to the polls because they cared much more, highlighting that “supporters of marriage for gay couples feel as strongly about the issue as opponents do, something that was not the case in the recent past.”
Finally, they emphasized that given the demographics, support would move in only one direction. “As Americans currently under the age of forty make up a greater percentage of the electorate, their views will come to dominate.”
The effect was exactly what we’d hoped. Politico ran a story titled “Bush, Obama Pollsters See ‘Dramatic’ Shift toward Same-Sex Marriage.” It began, “In a new polling memo intended to shape politicians’ decisions on the question of same-sex marriage, the top pollsters for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama jointly argue that support for same-sex marriage is increasingly safe political ground and will in future years begin to ‘dominate’ the political landscape.”
We followed up with an off-the-record media salon hosted by lesbian political commentator Hilary Rosen, featuring Joel Benenson and Evan, and attended by some of the top D.C. political reporters and columnists: Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, and a host of others. In a subsequent column entitled “The Good Politics of Gay Marriage,” Marcus wrote that “the data ought to give comfort that Obama would not commit political suicide were he to complete the evolution he clearly knows is inevitable. In the politics of 2011, survival of the fittest does not compel opposition to marriage equality.”
On December 14, Evan went to the White House for a second meeting with Valerie Jarrett. This time, he was full of thanks, for the administration’s embrace of heightened scrutiny and strong stand on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, and for backing the Respect for Marriage Act—the bill to repeal DOMA—when it was introduced earlier in the year. But Evan wasn’t there simply to congratulate. He was there to make the case that the president needed to finish the job and come out for marriage.
“With all respect, until you do it, you’re not going to get credit,” Evan told Jarrett.
She continued to push back, highlighting the president’s record on matters LGBT, including the bold actions on DOMA.
“You’re going to stop here?” Evan asked. “You won’t even get full credit for this amazingly wonderful thing.”
Evan shared the Benenson–van Lohuizen analysis and said that he believed strongly that supporting marriage would be to the president’s electoral advantage. He’d motivate younger voters who wanted to be with him but had become disillusioned over the last four years. And he was already too pro-gay to get the votes of those for whom opposition to marriage was a deciding issue.
He also said that, more than a year after the president said he was evolving, he was now coming across as inauthentic. That couldn’t be politically smart during the election season.
Jarrett bristled at the characterization of inauthenticity.
Evan then shifted to a hypothetical of how the president could come out for marriage if he decided to. “Would I love you to have the president come to some kind of Freedom to Marry event? Absolutely,” Evan said. “Or have me into the Oval Office and come out with a joint statement? Of course. But that’s not what you should do.” “What the president should do,” Evan asserted, “is sit down in an interview, in a conversational tone, with a reassuring message, and explain to the American people.”
Talk about the gay and lesbian couples in his life and the love and commitment they share, Evan suggested. And talk of the journey the president and first lady have taken and why they’ve resolved their own inner conflict in favor of the freedom to marry. This would be authentic, and it would model for the American people the journey that so many of them are on.
Jarrett listened carefully and engaged with Evan. Yet she didn’t show her cards on what she’d be encouraging the president to do.
The pollster memo and subsequent press made a splash, but as fall turned to winter in 2011 and the election grew closer, it still wasn’t at all clear if the president would come out in support prior to the election. The Democratic operatives I knew thought the president wouldn’t do it. After all, he was cautious by nature. And the word I got from one insider was that the campaign was most concerned about courting blue-collar white Democrats in rust belt states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—not exactly our best demographic.
I, on the other hand, could not imagine how the president could go into the election still “evolving” on the issue. During a campaign, he wouldn’t be able to escape media interviews, debates, and the like. Would he really say, in a presidential debate with the Republican nominee, that nineteen months later he was still evolving? That would come off as not at all credible. Also, another powerful narrative was taking hold: that younger voters who were crucial to the 2008 victory and whom Obama needed in 2012 were disillusioned and might stay home rather than vote at all. Unlike any other issue, marriage equality appeared to inspire younger voters. So if the president enunciated a position of support before the election, it would help counter the cynicism that was seemingly at the heart of younger voters’ reticence to go to the polls. I believed he would move our way. I even wagered cocktails with a Huffington Post reporter that he would announce his support by the spring.
It seemed to me we needed another major public push. So I came up with an idea that wouldn’t target the president directly but would put pressure on him nonetheless: a freedom to marry plank in the platform ratified at the Democratic National Convention. I knew that most leading Democrats—including those in the LGBT community—would not want to put direct pressure on the president. Now was the time to rally around him and get him reelected, not push him to do more. But the platform was an indirect target; we were pushing the party, not the president. Of course, since the Clinton years, the party platform for the Democrats had been largely under the control of the Democratic nominee. The campaign would want to ensure it was in sync with the candidate’s position, at least on a high-profile issue such as this. So I knew it would be a pressure point.
I also knew that we could wage a serious, robust campaign that could make things difficult for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). There would be an official process for approving a platform. It would likely include field hearings around the country, and then a Platform Drafting Committee would make recommendations to a full Platform Committee, which in turn would recommend a platform for ratification to the 5,556 delegates. Polling showed that 70 percent of Democrats were with us, and I figured that, of the active Democrats who would be delegates to the convention, that number would be closer to 90 percent. Stopping an aggressive effort for a plank would come at real political cost; the Obama folks would really have to put their foot down on something the vast majority of delegates would want and something that younger voters overwhelmingly supported.
It was also the case that the Democratic National Convention was looking to be a real yawner. The press would be searching for any kind of controversy or drama. This could be it, and the press would eat it up.
My main hesitation was that it could hurt the president, whom I supported and who had done so much good for our cause. Freedom to Marry had done our own polling and electoral analysis, even using Obama’s lead pollster, but if the Obama campaign’s much more intricate research showed it would be harmful for him to come out in support—an argument that many people, including many in the gay community, were making—we’d be boxing him into an uncomfortable place. He’d have to either reject something that much of his base—gay and straight—cared a great deal about or do something that could hurt him electorally. Also, I’d lived through the 2004 presidential election, when the marriage movement was scapegoated for John Kerry’s loss. If Obama were to lose by a small margin to our Massachusetts nemesis, Mitt Romney, soon after Obama had endorsed marriage equality, I could see the finger-pointing coming at us again. That was nerve-racking.
I thought long and hard about it, I spoke with a few confidants, and Evan and I batted it around. I concluded that, based on everything I knew, it was politically smart, even necessary, for him to come out in support. During the campaign, he couldn’t hide from the question. And the evolving line was simply untenable. What’s more, he’d already taken so many proactive steps on LGBT equality that anyone who would say they were voting against him because he supported the freedom to marry would almost assuredly already be against him. And finally, my mission was to drive the cause forward; the president and his team would have enough firepower to push back if they wanted to. Evan concurred, and so we moved.
I figured this idea would be controversial enough that we wouldn’t be able to get elected national Democrats to sign up right away. So our plan was to create momentum for the plank on social media with online petitions, Facebook ads, and the like. We’d then go to elected Democrats beginning with our closest allies to sign them up as well as enlist couples, parents, clergy, and other good spokespeople to testify at field hearings throughout the country and talk to the media closer to the summer’s official platform meetings. We’d use multiple pressure points on those serving on the committees working on the platform, and then target individual delegates through a variety of means, building a drumbeat up to the convention.
Evan gave Valerie Jarrett and Brian Bond a simple heads-up that we were launching this effort. These were our friends whom we wanted to push, not our antagonists.
On February 13, we launched the campaign, which we called “Democrats: Say I Do!” We released specific platform language that we hoped to see adopted and got a few news stories, mainly in the LGBT press, about the effort.
Our slow-build plan was immediately overtaken by events. That night, Chris Geidner, a reporter with MetroWeekly, a D.C. LGBT newspaper, reached out to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office and asked if the leader supported the initiative. Her staffer contacted us to learn more and let us know that the leader did support it and was likely to say so publicly. The next evening, Geidner ran a short piece that quoted her spokesman as saying, “Leader Pelosi supports this language.” This was huge: Pelosi was disciplined and took seriously her role as a party leader. To have her on board would signal to others that this was an acceptable position to take.
The following week, the Obama campaign announced a list of thirty-five co-chairs of the campaign. Nearly everyone on the list—from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen—was an outspoken supporter of the freedom to marry. This was a perfect list to mine and get as many as possible to take a stand in support of the marriage plank and then release that to the press.
I reached out to Senator Shaheen’s staff, whom I’d gotten to know well through the marriage campaign in New Hampshire. I knew they’d felt as though she’d never gotten the kind of recognition she deserved for her leadership on marriage. That, combined with her importance as a senior lawmaker from a swing state, made her an attractive and potentially motivated first senator to embrace the platform initiative. She was in, enthusiastically.
“If we look historically at the Democratic platform,” Shaheen told Huffington Post after we announced her support, “it has really been a vision document for where we’d like to go in the Democratic Party. Certainly I think this is a place where most of us believe we need to encourage the Democratic Party to go.” There was no question that now this was going to turn up the heat on the White House and the campaign.
Chris Johnson, a reporter with the LGBT publication the Washington Blade, saw the power of this story and reached out to all of Shaheen’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate to ask them if they, like Shaheen, supported the marriage plank. The subtext was, do you want to be left off a list when it goes public?
We piggybacked onto the Blade effort, making the case to senators, sharing the plank language, and telling them that the Blade would soon be calling and writing a story listing senators in support.
On Friday, March 2, the Blade ran its story. Titled “22 U.S. Senators Call for Marriage Equality Plank in Dem Platform,” the Blade explained that it had solicited written statements from all fifty-three Democratic senators and had received twenty-two in support. It quoted from each. John Kerry wrote, “I think this is an historic moment for the Democratic Party in our commitment to equal opportunity and our opposition to discrimination.” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said simply, “Of course marriage equality should be a part of the Democratic Party platform.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had been appointed the chair of the Democratic National Convention. One of the first questions he was asked was whether he supported the plank initiative. A stalwart support, his answer was that he did.
The week of March 5, both Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney were asked at press briefings about the initiative. Neither had much to say, but I loved it. There was no way the White House and Obama campaign weren’t paying attention now. We needed to keep the pressure and momentum going.
The following week, Huffington Post ran a long feature article on its home page about the pickle the Obama campaign was in with the platform initiative. Titled “Barack Obama, Gay Rights Groups Struggle over Democratic Platform,” the article spoke of conversations with “more than a dozen party officials and activists.” It said, “The wave of support to make it a component of his convention has both surprised aides and set off a private push to keep emotions and expectations in check.” It spoke of the campaign and the DNC “searching for ways to split the difference: showing support for equality but stopping short of a full-fledged endorsement.” The article cited sources who said “that the DNC has been asking advocates for patience, worried that more sweeping platform language would put the president in an awkward bind.”