Friday, November 21, 2008

How We Blew It: California's Prop 8 Defeat

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Terry Leftgoff formerly served as the highest ranking openly gay officer of the California Democratic Party and oversaw numerous campaign efforts including local unified Democratic campaigns for Bill Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer, among others. He is currently an Environmental, Government & Public Relations consultant living in West Hollywood. Terry is single and hopes to be able to marry someday.

A Bungled Campaign, A Call for Change, The 'Ick' Factor, and Historical Inevitability

Terry - Face June 03.jpgLast night I attended a meeting in Beverly Hills to hear some of the leaders of the losing No on Prop 8 campaign discuss why they thought we lost. I found myself strongly disagreeing with their assessment. I also found myself in excellent company among the many villagers gathering outside the village gates.

So what happened? On a day of a monumental tidal shift when voters bust down the front door of the White House for an African American and Californians voted to prevent the closing of another door to abortion rights, in a stunning reversal Californians voted to slam the door on the civil rights of gay couples and strip us of our right to marry.

The single biggest reason for the Proposition 8 loss was an ineffective and inept campaign strategy by the leadership of the No on 8 campaign, Despite raising record shattering amounts of money and volunteers who worked their hearts out, the overarching state campaign strategy was a huge flop.

How to Lose a Political Campaign

The statewide No on 8 campaign violated numerous standard rules of political campaigns and overlooked or ignored basic campaign strategy and in so doing lost a double digit lead to predictable scare tactics. Independent polls from both the California Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California showed Prop 8 losing by an increasing margin following the tidal wave of joyous wedding coverage growing to a double digit lead in September before intensive television advertising began.(1) Internal polls conducted by Equality California (ECQA) are said to have provided a different picture of voter opinion but ECQA has thus far declined to disclose them.

All three major elements of a successful campaign - media, field operation and Get Out The Vote program -- were flawed or worse, completely non-existent.

Ineffective Media

The No on 8 campaign began by allowing the Yes on 8 proponents to define the debate and it was never able to recover. This violated the first rule of political campaigns which is to never let your opponent define you first.

After a near fatal slow start, every emotional attack ad from Yes on 8 received a tepid intellectual response from No on 8. This violated another rule of political campaigns which is to quickly respond in equal kind to an attack so it is not allowed to penetrate the public mind. 

Instead of running a diverse multi-message campaign of persuasion, the media message was emotionless, monotone and uncompelling. In short, the media messages failed to move or even educate voters about the issue and instead appealed to a single abstract principle - equality - that was not sufficiently persuasive or connected to the content of the proposition. Worse, there appeared to be no effective Black or Latino strategy.

An effective target strategy would have been to send Democratic voters mailers with a picture of Barack Obama and other prominent diverse leaders who oppose Prop 8 and, alternately, to send Republican voters mailers with pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other prominent religious and conservative leaders who oppose Prop 8. This is textbook targeting.

TV AD #1: A perky but awkward teenager is sitting in a school yard. He or she is Black or Latino. He could be the actor who plays the gay son on Ugly Betty. He speaks directly into the camera while shuffling his feet: "You know, it's hard growing up feeling different. Rejection hurts. Self esteem and acceptance are vital to the success of kids like me. Did you know that as many as 1 in 3 gay and lesbian teens attempt suicide? Prop 8 would prevent people like me from marrying. When I grow up, I hope to get married someday. Please don't take that hope away from me. Just growing up is hard enough." (Gentle woman's voice: "Vote no on 8, Please don't discriminate')

The touching images about post-Supreme Court weddings that so effectively humanized the issue were squandered. The magnificent media saturation about our personal stories that was broadcast throughout every corner of the state caused huge gains in public opinion and, by extension, voter preferences. Did our advertising strategy utilize these moving stories? Inexplicably, they did not.

The sanitized media messages smacked of a campaign by focus group. Such an outdated orthodox approach should have been over-ridden by common sense and political savvy. How it is our community's considerable collective campaign knowledge could have lead the No on 8 campaign so astray?

Ads never even mentioned the subject matter of the proposition -- gay marriage or marriage equality -- ceding it to the Yes on 8 proponents to define for the electorate. The No on 8 ads never featured simple first hand heartfelt stories of gay and lesbian families talking about what it means to them and their children to have the legal benefits of marriage and conversely, what it would mean to have that right ripped away. They never featured our children and what the legal protection of marriage means to them. And significantly they did not reflect the diversity of our electorate.

TV AD #2: A gay couple is sitting with their young children. They speak directly into the camera: "The legal protections of marriage are important to us because, like other parents, we're concerned about what might happen to them should something happen to one of us. Prop 8 would take away the right to marry of people like us. Please don't take that away from us or from them." (Gentle voice: 'Vote no on 8. Please don't discriminate')

When it became clear things were going awry, campaign managers were changed mid-stream. There was a noticeable shift in messaging during which media messages became more powerful but they continued to dance around the issue. By this point, it was too little too late.

The 'Ick Factor'

Let's address the 'Ick Factor'.(2) In this situation, it applies to the way our proponents sexualize and demonize the gay community then attempt to exploit the discomfort they created. One particularly effective theme of the demonizing attack ads by the Yes on 8 proponents was the shameless use of lies about children. But instead of humanizing ourselves and our children, No on 8 responded by hiding us in the closet, in effect a self inflicted wound, and failing to show how such attacks are hurtful to the well-being of our children.

History has shown us that when the humanity of the gay community is showcased, public opinion is highly responsive. This has been true with AIDS, prior attacks on gay teachers, and with the coverage of gay weddings. Instead, the campaign message rendered gay couples and parents invisible with antiseptic ads that in effect dehumanized us which allowed these demonizing attack ads by Yes on 8 proponents to flourish in the public mind. These emotional tactics by Yes on 8 proponents were cliche, shopworn and completely predictable. The gay community was 'disappeared', hidden in the closet like a shameful crazy uncle, within ineffective third party media messaging. The singular media message, approach and roll out was, at best, painfully slow and monotone, and, at worst, it reflected internalized homophobia.

There were no ads that pealed back the curtain on who the stealth sponsors of Prop 8 were and the religiously based campaign they were waging. The Mormon Church and its members bitch slapped the gay community, accounting for nearly $20 M or close to half of all Yes on 8 proponent contributions. They sponsored and ran an effective ground operation that trained members to never let on they were Mormon. The Mormon Church has, in a well guarded secret, been the primary sponsor of virtually every anti-gay initiative that has appeared on a state ballot in the United States. How salient would an ad have been that asked voters whether the Mormon Church of Utah, infamous for its polygamists and forcing underage young girls into exploitive marriages, should lecture Californians about marriage? We'll never know since no such ad was produced.

TV AD #3: A well known black civil rights figure or minister speaks directly into the camera: "The Mormon Church of Utah is behind Prop 8 on the ballot. They want to ban gay marriage. Did you know that for over a century, the Mormon Church banned blacks from becoming members.(3) Now they want to tell Californians what our marriages should look like? (Gentle voice: 'Vote no on 8. Please don't discriminate')

I wonder how such an ad might have resonated with African American voters, 70% of which ended up siding with the Mormon Church on Prop 8.(4) Internal polls conducted by Equality California (ECQA) are said to show 57% support from Black voter preferences but ECQA has thus far declined to release them.

By contrast, Jewish voters in Los Angeles overwhelmingly opposed Prop 8 by a margin of 78-8%. (5) Jewish opposition to Prop 8 is reported to be the highest of any ethnic or religious voter group. It is remarkable how these two voter groups, who are frequent allies and traditionally vote along similar lines when it comes to social justice issues, completely diverged. We need to understand why and learn from it.

Perhaps one of the most instructive and disturbing contradictions of the election is to hear Black religious leaders justify their position by using the same language and rationale against gay marriage that was historically used against them. Several interviews with leading black leaders supporting Prop 8 repeated the mantra that to them it was not a civil rights issue but rather a moral or religious issue.

This is the identical language used by the racists of their day to defend segregation, to ban interracial marriage and to justify discrimination in housing. This latter issue is particularly salient because, like marriage equality, it was placed before voters and, in a similar expression of the 'people's will', was overwhelmingly approved prior to being stricken by the California Supreme Court.(6) Clearly we failed to sufficiently make our case with Black voters. And we need to understand why.

TV AD #4: A black minister speaks directly into the camera; "There used to be a legal ban on blacks and Jews moving into white neighborhoods. They used to tell us it wasn't a civil rights issue, it was a moral issue. Yeah, right. Now they've put Prop 8 on the ballot that would ban gay marriage. They are saying it isn't a civil rights issue, it's just a moral issue. Uh huh. Photo montage of Barack Obama and other Black leaders who are against Prop 8. (Gentle female voice: 'Vote no on 8. Please don't discriminate')

No Grassroots Organization, A Weak Field Operation, Failed GOTV Program

Rather than organizing local organizing committees across the state for a strong locally grown grass roots operation, the campaign appeared insular and apparently did not include or listen to those with experience in the winning grassroots activism that has beaten back repeated anti-gay measures during the last 3 decades. Further, they failed to run a basic ground operation and relied upon a website that was so bad it frequently acted as a repellent.

The Yes on 8 proponents used a traditional field operation by personally talking to potential voters at the precinct level. In this, there is no substitute for face-to-face campaigning. The personal approach has proven to be the most effective and it is backed by years of political science and empirical experience. Standard campaign practice holds that it takes 3 personal contacts to firm up a leaning voter. In contrast, No on 8 apparently never conducted an actual ground operation, relying instead on a patchwork of phone banks with limited reach and saturation, and surrendered outlying areas likely racking up larger losses.

Further, looking beyond ineffective media and a weak ground operation, there was an incompetent Get Out The Vote (GOTV) strategy which likely resulted in lower turnout of supporters in key voter rich counties. I personally received a note from the No on 8 campaign thanking me for my offer to volunteer for Election Day GOTV activities but declining because they had no need. No need for volunteers on Election Day?! They did offer, however, that I could come in to help clean their offices the day after the election. How nice. I imagine cleaning their office the day after the election might produce scads of new votes. Not.

As it turns out, I was not alone. Numerous volunteers, whose stories have lit up Internet blogs, were turned away by No on 8 on Election Day because there was no real GOTV strategy.

So what was their GOTV program? The weekend before the election, volunteers were 'trained' to stand outside polling places on Election Day. And if you missed the 'training' there was no use for you.

What's wrong with that approach? This is often counterproductive because: a. it doesn't increase turnout (people are already entering the polls); b. by this time voters generally have already made up their minds; c. even though the law specifies a buffer around polling places where there can be no electioneering, it can be intimidating to voters and can turn people against; and, d. you want all available hands on deck on election day without any artificial barriers.

A textbook GOTV program is one that focuses on actually getting your supporters to vote: transport people to polling places, check the polling place throughout the day to see who of your supporters hasn't voted yet, then make efforts to get them to the polls.

What about all those voters who voted by mail? Typically, it is crucial to have a strategy to contact these early voters at the time mail ballots are being received, weeks before the election and outside the reach of last minute media messages. This is where early targeted mailers make a crucial impact. But that was not part of the strategy either.

How could there be no mail voter strategy? Good question. It was well known and anticipated that the use of mail ballots would be unprecedented; in fact, more voters cast their votes by mail in this election than at any time in state history.

The Linchpin - Los Angeles County

So where did it really go wrong? Los Angeles County. It is the single most important County in California accounting for 25% of all votes cast in the state, and it is where the campaign appears to have collapsed.

It seems Prop 8 was primarily lost in LA County, which due to a 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans typically delivers enough votes to dilute and cushion conservative votes elsewhere (primarily in Orange and San Diego Counties, among others).

LA is essential to the electoral success of a traditionally liberal cause. A simple party line vote in LA, given the projected turnout, would have polled between 5-600,000 more votes against Prop 8 than it did. Had it done so, Prop 8 would have lost. In the case of Prop 8, not only did LA not deliver, it leaned in the wrong direction and contributed to a state deficit of over 500,000 votes.

Could a more effective GOTV strategy have increased turnout among supporters increasing the winning margin in supportive areas and decreasing the margin of loss in hostile areas? That is the intended purpose. Too often elections are won by who stays home. One signal is that Prop 4 was successfully defeated by the identical vote margin that passed Prop 8. So there was a clear discordance among some voter groups. And it appears the Prop 8 campaign had both a tail wind and a head wind.

As for turnout, despite repeated media reports about record turnout in the low 80's % the reality was slightly lower in California. As of this writing, LA County, with about 4.1 M registered voters, reports about 3 Million votes cast for a turnout of close to 75% which is strong and consistent with turnout of 71% statewide which will likely be revised upward due to reporting delays. So there appears to have been some room to increase turnout. Numbers are preliminary as votes are still being tallied and it is likely they will continue to be revised upward into early December.

Turnout in Orange County, with just over 1.6 M registered voters, is reported to be lower at about 70% or 1.12 Million ballots cast as of this writing. It is a bastion of conservative votes where John McCain polled over 36,000 votes or a margin of 3% more than Barack Obama. Prop 8 won by 172,000 votes or by 58-42. Prop 4 won by 93,000 votes or by 54-46.

By comparison, turnout in San Francisco, with 477,651 registered voters, is reported to be 375,000 or 78.5% with less than 1% or close to 4500 ballots still to be counted. Both Prop 8 and 4 lost by identical margins (75-25). Still 25% of voters in SF voted yes on Prop 8. Just think about that for a moment.

A Call to Account and for Accountability - A Losing Strategy That Didn't Have to Be

I blame an incompetent campaign that blew through $40 Million and had little to show for it but a losing strategy.

The Yes on 8 proponents relied on an early gusher of funding, much of it from the Mormon Church. So No on 8 was initially hampered and swamped in early fundraising. No on 8 raised $15 Million before October 1 and $25 Million after October 1; this trend was reversed for Yes on 8 proponents which earned them some strategic advantage.

No on 8 deserves huge accolades for fundraising. Although slow to start, it was spectacular for shear volume of contributions and the number of individual contributors. But it turns out that in the end, for No on 8 -- the gay and lesbian community and our allies -- it wasn't a matter of money, it turned out to be a matter of simple political smarts. There were plenty of brilliant attorneys and managers in the room but apparently no political or grassroots operatives to guide an electoral strategy.

It is painful for our community to face such a public rejection. The dimensions of that pain from rejection are where many of us live our lives. But it did not have to be. So this moment represents a special time for painful introspection about a lost opportunity and a new opportunity for profound learning.

I hereby call upon activists, community leaders and local, state and national organizations in California and throughout the country to hold Community Town Hall forums to account for such a momentous series of campaign blunders. We need a transparent comprehensive campaign post-mortem, to air concerns, share collective wisdom and to jointly plan our future. Democracy is messy; it's inside that mess where we regain traction and rebuild a stronger movement.

We need to have an open two-way conversation that rectifies the insularity of this campaign, where our diverse community is welcome at the table and no voice is shut out. This must involve everyone: young and old, street activists, uber-lesbigays, celebri-gays, leatherfolk, allies, donors and leadership.

In Los Angeles County, I call for a forthright and blunt introspection about what went wrong, without defensiveness or recrimination. There needs to be full accountability before we can trust our leaders with another $40 Million for a future initiative endeavor for which we are already being called upon to support. For a future campaign to succeed, we must be there together for the liftoff if they want us there for the landing.

The starter for these forums should be the words, "We screwed up and here's what we need to learn from it. What do you think?" Then those responsible for this campaign need to bust open the process, welcome in all the villagers, and quietly listen as the sorrow of our anguish meets the redemption of our ambitions.

Any good news?

What can we take from this debacle? Despite such a bungled campaign and a loss of a 20 point lead, support still grew by 10% over 2000 Proposition 22 results narrowing the margin of loss to a slender 4%. Imagine what we could have done with a well crafted campaign strategy.

We can learn from what went right in a County like Santa Barbara where No on 8 succeeded 53-47 despite the state campaign strategy, not because of it. This is a county where, due to culture and geographic isolation, political campaigns are not won by media but by the shoe leather of smart locally originated and implemented field operations. Unlike the state No on 8 campaign strategy, local leaders targeted the very areas lost to Prop 22, joined local precinct walk operations and GOTV programs, organized the faith community, secured and publicized important endorsements and, most importantly, they successfully humanized the issue. It is an excellent case study since this one County mirrors the most extreme political divisions of the state as a whole. If you can win in a region that is evenly split between coastal progressive voters and inland conservative voters, you can win almost anywhere in California.

The silver lining is that shifting voter demographics reveal an inevitable generational and historical trend toward acceptance of gay civil rights. As previously mentioned our community deserves huge accolades for fundraising. Impressively, half of all donations to No on Prop 8 were in amounts less than $100 which is promising as it indicates width of active support.

This devastating loss jolted and awakened new generations of outraged gays, lesbians and our allies out of their slumber around the world. It is awesome to witness the sea of humanity at our protests. When our civil rights are ripped away, we bleed.

It's not over; we're just getting started

We suffered an electoral gay bashing and we will not rest until we get our rights back. To mangle a saying, now we need to get angry and get organized. Let's harness this new energy, rebuild a fresh new movement out of our defeat, learn new ways of community organizing and revitalize and launch new organizations. And let's learn from our mistakes, not by making bigger and better mistakes, but by avoiding them next time. We need to rebuild better strategic working coalitions with our social justice allies who are key to our advancement. It is time for the elders to begin passing along the successful strategies of our struggles to the next generations and then join in a new torch relay together.

That many of our western allies are ahead of the United States on gay marriage offers hope that America, lead by an Obama Administration, rather than bringing up the rear, will once again reassert its leadership on human rights issues in the world. And it is positive the Mormon Church has finally been publicly outted for its obsessive anti-gay electoral activities.

So the battle and the struggle continues and it now moves back to the Supreme Court where only last May they recognized our fundamental rights and made an unprecedented declaration that sexual orientation is a legally protected class from discrimination.

Judging by their sweeping ruling last May, I believe they are expecting us...

1. 'Polling on Prop. 8 - California's Same Sex Marriage Ban', by Mark DiCamillo, Director of the California Field Poll,, November 7,1008 . Early September Field Poll showed the opposition leading by 14 or 17%. depending on wording. Mid-September polling by Public Policy Institute of California showed a lead of 14%. Prop 8 proponent ads began airing mid-to-late September.
2. The term, 'Ick Factor', was coined by Eric Rofes to describe a visceral recoil between gay men and lesbians.
3. 'The Church and the Negro', John Lewis Lund. Deseret Books.
4. CNN Exit Polling Data
5. The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
6. Mulkey v. Reitman (1966) 64 Cal.2d 529, affd. sub nom.Reitman v. Mulkey (1967) 387 U.S. 369


Anonymous said...

Give ma a break. Scare tactics, and lots of money. You are telling me that is why no to PROP 8 was successful? Could it be that the people have spoken and they said no and ment no. As far as I can tell the OBAMA team won the election the same way no to Prop 8 won scare tactics and a boat loat of money.

Anonymous said...

The people have spoken? Here's the thing, the majority have no business voting on taking rights away from a minority. It should have gone to the legislature only. We are a republic not a democracy.. we elect representatives to learn about things and make educated decisions. I don't seem to remember being asked to vote on whether Arnold could marry Maria.