When gay marriage proponents in Maine lost at the ballot box in 2009, it marked yet another defeat in a string of disappointments for gay rights advocates across the nation. Sure, there had been progress in state legislatures and in some courts, but none at the voting booth.
Matt McTighe, a volunteer on Maine’s marriage equality campaign in 2009, was determined to reverse those fortunes, but it wasn’t going to happen without an honest look at why pro-gay marriage messaging kept falling short once it landed on statewide ballots.
“We just started doing all this research in 2010 not knowing when we were even going to go back to the ballot,” says McTighe. “There was some polling and field analysis. Mostly it was just a lot of focus groups, a lot of one-on-one interviews and a lot of video testing.”
Following a year’s worth of qualitative and quantitative research, McTighe realized that pro-gay marriage advocates were in need of a complete strategic overhaul if they wanted to win. So heading into the 2012 cycle with gay marriage on the ballot once again in Maine, McTighe—now the campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage—completely scrapped the old playbook.
“I just said: ‘Look, we need to start over again and basically go about it a totally different way,’” he says. “What we think we know isn’t working—all this stuff about rights and benefits, civil rights and equality. That’s just not what’s going to win ballot initiatives.”
The messaging was rewritten and the strategy completely reconsidered. And Maine wasn’t the only place it was happening. In Washington state, Zach Silk was gearing up for a ballot fight too. He was tasked with managing the pro same-sex marriage campaign for the group Washington United for Marriage.
“When you’ve gone 0-32 you need to start over in terms of how you’re approaching messaging, connecting with voters and tactics,” says Silk.
Underlying the strategic change was the fact that public opinion on gay marriage was shifting rapidly. In 2009, Americans were solidly opposed—54 to 37 percent, according to numbers from Pew Research. By 2011, that opposition had eroded entirely. Heading into the 2012 cycle, Americans were split on gay marriage with 46 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed, according to Pew.
While that shift in opinion undoubtedly contributed to ballot initiative victories in 2012, strategists who worked on pro-gay marriage efforts last cycle are convinced the fresh messaging was the primary driver behind wins in Maine, Washington state, Maryland and Minnesota. After a string of more than 30 straight losses at the ballot box, gay marriage won approval in Maine, Washington and Maryland, while Minnesota shot down a ballot initiative that would have defined marriage between a man and a woman.
That all set the stage for the Supreme Court, which ruled on two gay rights cases this summer. The high court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, in which the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional, is a huge win for gay rights advocates. And while the court essentially punted on Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Prop 8 case, the immediate effect is that same-sex marriage is once again legal in the state of California.
Now, with more ballot battles looming in 2014 and beyond, some strategists think gay marriage proponents may have finally found a playbook that works.
A values-based pitch
Ahead of the 2012 cycle in Maine, McTighe and his campaign focused on training a large volume of volunteers to go door-to-door and talk to voters about marriage in a way gay marriage advocates haven’t done before.
The strategy, according to McTighe, was to just have a conversation about marriage and values. Do you know a gay person? Maybe someone you work with? A friend or family member? The pitch focused less on civil rights and justice and more on convincing skeptical voters that their values are shared by gay couples.