A Democratic candidate winning statewide in the South after campaigning in support of gay rights was once unthinkable.
Not in 2013. Even in the days before the polls opened in Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe decided to highlight his pro-equality stance and contrast that with gubernatorial rival Ken Cuccinelli (R), who once called gay Virginians “self-destructive.” It marked the end of what was a victorious campaign, which focused on keeping “gay rights on the political front burner.”
McAuliffe may not have won even two cycles ago, but the political landscape has changed. From switching to red equality logos to re-tweeting LGBT groups and pushing LGBT policy initiatives, many candidates and Democratic committees didn’t shy away from their pro-equality stances this cycle. In an age where social media rewards authenticity, brevity, humanistic and tangible messages, it’s no surprise messages about marriage equality and love trumped more abstract policy positions.
This validated the data Bully Pulpit Interactive saw from our campaigns and committees: Messages about marriage equality were some of the highest performing in regard to engagement.
President Obama's reelection and the four marriage victories in 2012 began to prove that touting LGBT equality wouldn’t be a detractor for campaign success, but instead, a critical motivator.
What was once a wedge issue and a tool for the right has now become a rallying cry for Democrats. This is not to say all LGBT issues have made it to the mainstream, but we think it's proof that things are, in fact, getting better.
From our view, here are four reasons promoting equality led to success in 2013 races:
- Supporters want something to cheer about: State and SCOTUS marriage victories in 2012 and 2013 provided hope to many activists disenchanted by congressional inaction. Equality has become a Democratic base issue that can help bolster enthusiasm, support and donations for a candidate or committee.
- LGBT storytelling has helped shift the conversation: It used to be unimaginable to run an LGBT-affirming ad in an election. Due to shifting demographics, more LGBT individuals speaking out and sharing their stories and better message framing by advocates, it’s become easier for pro-equality candidates to speak louder and gain broad support.
- The message is about love, not acronyms: Pro-equality candidates and groups are winning the messaging battle. It’s not “gay marriage,” it’s “marriage.” It’s being able to marry the person you love. It’s about living free of discrimination. Love is something we can all relate to, while labels, not so much.
- Clear contrasts win online: Cuccinelli’s extreme positions provided a stark contrast compared with McAuliffe. Since the start of the campaign, McAuliffe was upfront, straightforward, open and positive about his support of equality, while candidates like Cuccinelli expressed extreme ideas against the LGBT community, which backfired against him. The contrast made it easier to energize supporters online.
Scott Zumwalt is a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive. He has worked on campaigns for Tom Vilsack, Hillary Clinton and Kay Hagan and was the chief digital strategist behind the It Gets Better Project. A version of this post was also published on BPI’s website.