Friday, April 10, 2009

Equality if we can keep it, part 2

Equality if we can keep it, part 2: The Campaign

Supporters of marriage equality are basking in the glow of victory now, and the legislative leadership has decided to uphold the Iowa constitution.

But at some point the Iowa ballot may see a vote to take away equal marriage rights. The sands of time are drifting our way, but for now marriage equality has a dismal 1-30 record at the ballot box (our only win, Arizona in 2006, was taken away in a 2008 do-over).

So we need to figure out what to do when that day comes, and the hard lessons of California in 2008 can be useful.

  • Start now. California saw massive protests and endless navel-gazing after Prop 8's win, which prompted the LA Times to ask, "Where were these marchers before the election? Like nearly every aspect of the fight against Proposition 8, the recent protests come too late to make a difference."

    "It's hard to prepare for a hurricane in the middle of a hurricane," said No campaign executive committee member Kate Kendell at a February conference, "We have to have difficult conversations now, and now work leading up to the fight so that we are prepared for the fight."

  • We can't win just with our people. There's three levels of reaction, split roughly a third a third a third (for the sake of argument): affirmation, opposition, and ambivalence. Matt Coles at Huffington Post writes:
    "Around Labor Day, voters in California fell roughly into three groups: 1) those who supported marriage for same-sex couples (about 40 percent); 2) those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples (also about 40 percent); and 3) voters who were seriously conflicted (about 15 to 20 percent).

    That group of 'conflicted' voters was mostly made up of people deeply uncomfortable with marriage for gay couples, but who were also uncomfortable with the idea of taking something positive away from other people."

    We may not move the ambivalent to full emotional affirmation of same-sex marriage, but we only have to firm up their acceptance.

  • As hard as it may be sometimes, don't alienate the middle of the roaders by calling opponents bigots (even if they are).

    Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint, consultants for the Yes side, write:
    The No side went in a new direction in the final few days—-attempting to equate a Yes vote with racial discrimination. One ad with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that regardless of how people felt about gay marriage, 'we must always oppose' discrimination. They even tried to compare banning gay marriage to interning Japanese Americans during World War II camps in an ad narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

    We decided to not respond to this line of attack, confident that it would backfire. The basic message that supporters of traditional marriage are bigots, guilty of discrimination, had never worked in focus groups. For liberal whites like Feinstein to lecture black Californians about discrimination was not a winning message.

  • The media campaign will be a tightrope walk. There was a lot of post-election debate about the campaign's decision not to prominently feature gay couples, out celebrities, or a specific "this is about gay marriage" message prominently in ads. One school of thought holds that swing voters need to see "normal" couples to reach the point of acceptance, but the consultants thought Actual People With The Gay would alienate the middle. That decision, in turn, alienated the campaign's strongest supporters. They wanted affirmation rather than mere tolerance.

    I don't have a good answer here. Iowa is a very different electorate than California, and the election year, whenever it is, will be different as well. 2008 was All Obama All The Time, and No on Prop 8 had the same problem that Yes on the conservation bond had here: Obama pulled away the volunteers.

    Which leads to my next point:

  • We can't count on the coordinated campaign. Depending on the cycle, the state party will care more about the presidential or governor's race, and they'll definitely sell out marriage equality to keep the likes of Dolores Mertz and Geri Huser, who never vote with us when it really matters (as we saw yesterday when they voted with Republicans in a failed effort to move the inequality amendment to the House floor. That primary challenge to Huser last year was really a lost opportunity.)

    Nope. We'll be largely on our own, which means:

  • We'll need to do smart things. That's easier said than defined.

    The 1992 Iowa ERA campaign, separate from the Democratic Party but with somewhat overlapping voters, ran a totally separate operation and did some really stupid stuff, like having people standing outside polling places (close to or beyond the legal limit) reminding people to vote Yes. People though that was an inappropriate intrusion on the semi-sacred voting process (Move On later made the same mistake), and it also inadvertently reminded people to vote No. The effort also took a lot of volunteers, who might have been better used on Democratic GOTV efforts in a year where we narrowly lost the Iowa House and Dave Nagle.

    Paul Hogarth writes: "I was happy talking on the phone with swing voters—-which was useful and effective—-but they seemed more interested in having us do visibility in San Francisco, going to strongly liberal (even gay) parts of town to make sure our base knew they had to vote 'no.' Rather than preaching to the choir, we were told this was useful because much of our base was confused—that some supporters think they’re supposed to vote 'yes' on Prop 8 to affirm gay marriage."

    But I can see some utility here. Iowa Citians will remember the counter-intuitive First Avenue votes in 1997 and 2000, where you had to vote No to build a road and Yes to stop it. We saw the "No Delay" slogan and stop sign shaped YES signs. I can easily see a campaign of deception to play on the confusion.

  • Young men may be a weak spot. I know all the polls show support for marriage equality increasing as age decreases, but there's still a pretty deep streak of macho homophobia among 20 something men that doesn't necessarily show up in surveys. We'll need a persuasion strategy here.

  • We'll be up against big bucks and we'll need big bucks. Maybe out of state money will be a campaign issue, maybe it won't.

    We'll also see Palin, Huckabee, the Mitt, and Jindal all over the state in 2011 whipping up the troops and trying to outdo each other, with no corresponding activity on our side. This is an opportunity. The Republicans will define themselves more and more as the party of the religious right, as their presidential candidates outdo themselves trying to win support from the fringe of the fringe. The Ames Straw Poll will be the Gaypocalypse.

    Next: Some specific electoral scenarios.
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