For over a decade and a half, same-sex marriage advocates experienced a long and almost unbroken series of defeats at the ballot box, including the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, Maine’s Question 1 a year later, and an anti-gay constitutional amendment in North Carolina in spring 2012. But in fall 2012, things changed. Not only did Minnesota voters defeat a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but majorities in Maine, Maryland, and Washington voted to legalize marriage for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) citizens. What changed? A new report from Political Research Associates (PRA), The Right’s Marriage Message: Talking Tolerance, Marketing Inequality, reveals the impact of the Right’s changed messaging: same-sex marriage opponents shifted away from what had proven successful in previous campaigns, even as marriage advocates learned from previous failures.
Report author David Dodge, equality activist and researcher, writes: “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. 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 in states including Indiana and Oregon.” Among the findings:
- Same-sex marriage opponents downplayed “harm to kids” messaging this election cycle. In 2008, one of the Yes on 8 campaign’s most controversial — and successful — ads was the “Princes” ad, featuring a young daughter expressing excitement over learning in school that she can marry a “princess” someday, to her mother’s shock and dismay. In fall 2012, fewer than half featured “harm to kids” messaging, and often as only a side note to the main theme. 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 relationships and sexual behavior with children.
- Instead, a popular theme was the “victims” argument — that same-sex marriage would effectively strip citizens of the right to act according to their religious beliefs. For example, an ad by Protect Marriage Maine featured a couple, Jim and Mary O’Reilly, claiming that they were barred from holding weddings at their inn 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 thirty thousand dollars and can no longer host any weddings at our inn.” In fact, the wedding “ban” was voluntary on their part, and resulted from existing state nondiscrimination laws.
- National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) strategy to use same-sex marriage as a “wedge” issue between the African American and LGBTQ communities failed to defeat marriage equality in Maryland. As revealed in internal documents, NOM had sought to “find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage… [and] provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.” Yet while African American support for marriage equality dropped over the course of the campaign, showing that this strategy might have had some effect, come Election Day, Maryland exit polls showed that African Americans – who comprise 30 percent of that state’s population — supported same-sex marriage by 46 percent. Moreover, according to national exit polls, African Americans supported their state legalizing same-sex marriage by 51 percent, compared to 47 percent of whites.
- In 2012, pro-LGBTQ advocates used more emotionally resonant arguments about the importance of marriage to LGBTQ couples in all four states facing ballot measures. In previous years, marriage advocates deliberately deemphasized LGBTQ couples, in favor of arguments defending their rights or arguing about the consequences of a measure on other types of couples. This year they stressed how LGBTQ couples and their families are affected due to their inability to marry — on an emotional level.
The report is available for download here.