Same-Sex Setback

Don't blame Mormons or black voters — the California activists who tried to stop Prop 8 ran a lousy campaign

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Photo:Jewel Amad/AFP/Getty
Eleven days after California banned gay marriage, more than 100,000 protestors took to the streets.

On election night in California, all signs pointed to a progressive tidal wave. Voters in the state swept Barack Obama to a 24-point victory over John McCain — the biggest margin for any candidate since 1936. Bucking the recession, eco-conscious Californians voted to spend $10 billion to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with a European-style bullet train. It was even a banner night for chickens, with 63 percent of the electorate approving a PETA-endorsed proposition to expand the size of poultry cages on factory farms.

The Case for Obama

Then the returns for Proposition 8 came in. The amendment to ban gay marriage — a right affirmed by the state Supreme Court in May and put into practice by more than 18,000 couples — passed by a four-point margin, as Californians voted to eviscerate the equal-protection clause of the state constitution. Along with similar bans in Arizona and Florida — as well as a measure in Arkansas that bars same-sex couples from adopting children or even serving as foster parents — Prop 8 offered hope to the Christian right that their decades-long culture wars may continue to rage, despite Obama's historic victory. All told, more than 2 million Californians who voted for Obama also pulled the lever for Prop 8.

This article appeared in the December 11, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Election postmortems have been quick to scapegoat minorities for the loss. The right pointed out that African-Americans voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage; the left blasted Mormons who obeyed an unprecedented dictate from the church's leadership in Salt Lake City and donated 45 percent of the funds for a campaign to pass Prop 8.

But evidence of entrenched homophobia and religious intolerance obscure a more difficult truth. Prop 8 should have been defeated — two months before the election, it was down 17 points in the polls — but the gay-rights groups that tried to stop it ran a lousy campaign. According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote.

RS Politics Daily: Political and national news coverage from RS contributing editor Tim Dickinson

"This was political malpractice," says a Democratic consultant who operates at the highest level of California politics. "They fucked this up, and it was painful to watch. They shouldn't be allowed to pawn this off on the Mormons or anyone else. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and now hundreds of thousands of gay couples are going to pay the price."

Slash, Melissa Etheridge, Jack Black Protest California's Prop 8

From the start, leaders of the No on Prop 8 campaign and their high-priced consultants failed to realize what they were up against. According to Geoff Kors, who headed the campaign's executive committee, the No side anticipated needing no more than $20 million to stop the gay-marriage ban. The Yes side, by contrast, set out to change how initiative politics are played, building a well-funded operation that rivaled a swing-state presidential campaign in its scope and complexity. It also built a powerful, faith-based coalition that included the Catholic Church, Protestant evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "The direct involvement of the Mormon church — moving donors in a very short window to give early — was stunning," says Patrick Guerriero, who was called in to take over as campaign manager of No on Prop 8 in the final month. "It was unprecedented — and probably impossible to predict."

Just Say Now

In fact, as documented in an internal LDS memo leaked during the campaign, proposals for such a coalition had been on the table for more than a decade. In the memo, a high-ranking Mormon leader discusses approaches for fighting gay marriage in California: "The Church should be in a coalition and not out front by itself," the memo advocates. "The public image of the Catholic Church is higher than our Church.... If we get into this, they are the ones with which to join."

It's ironic that the coalition to define marriage in California as the union between "one man and one woman" was anchored by a church whose founder claimed 33 wives. It's also ironic that the coalition — which framed Prop 8 as a fight to protect California's children — was quietly knit together by the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, who once excused the molestation of children at the hands of a pedophile priest as mere "horseplay." But once the Mormons joined the effort, they quickly established themselves as "the foundation of the campaign," says Frank Schubert, the consultant who directed Yes on 8. "We could count on their money and their people being there early." Schubert put Mormon volunteers to work in an expansive field campaign modeled on the effort his business partner, Jeff Flint, worked on in 2004 for George Bush in Ohio. "This is the first time in initiative history that it's ever been done" for a ballot measure, says Schubert. Throughout the summer, Yes on 8 deployed an army of more than 100,000 volunteers to knock on doors in every zip code in the state.

"We had an enormous grass-roots advantage," Schubert says. "Our core was people of faith, and we were able to organize through churches." In the end, he says, the campaign visited 70 percent of all California households in person, and contacted another 15 percent by phone.

The No on Prop 8 campaign, meanwhile, was oblivious to the formidable field operation that the other side was mounting. Worse, its executive committee refused to include leaders of top gay and lesbian grass-roots organizations, which deprived them of an army of willing foot soldiers. "We didn't have people going door to door," admits Yvette Martinez, the campaign's political director. The field operation consisted of volunteers phone-banking from 135 call centers across the state, an effort that didn't begin ramping up until mid-October. "They had no ground game," says a leading Democratic consultant. "They thought they could win this thing by slapping some ads together. It was the height of naiveté."

The Yes on 8 campaign's get-out-the-vote effort was equally prodigious. The weekend before the vote, Schubert's religious volunteers once again went door to door, speaking to supporters and directing them to the right precinct locations. "On Election Day," he says, "we had 100,000 people — five per precinct — checking voter rolls and contacting supporters who hadn't showed up to vote."

By contrast, the No on Prop 8 campaign mobilized just 11,000 volunteers on Election Day, which they deployed to polling locations to hold "Vote No on 8" signs. The campaign even turned away volunteers who were unable to attend a sign-holding training seminar. Terry Leftgoff, a veteran campaign consultant who was once the highest-ranking gay officer in the California Democratic Party, was one of those who was informed that his services weren't needed. "I was told I could come by on November 5th and help clean up a campaign office," Leftgoff says.

As terrible as the No on Prop 8 campaign did on the ground, it did even worse on the air.

Until the final days, the campaign failed to take advantage of the backing of every major newspaper in the state, as well as that of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former President Bill Clinton and future President Barack Obama. In one bizarre episode, an outside consultant was forced to "jackhammer" the campaign leadership simply to convince them to make use of a robo-call from Bill Clinton. The campaign also rejected a Spanish-language ad featuring Dolores Huerta, a heroine of the United Farm Workers union.

"There were big mistakes that led to this flop," says Leftgoff, the veteran consultant. "They lacked the media messaging essential to any campaign."

To make matters worse, the No campaign refused to reassure voters by presenting positive depictions of gay and lesbian couples in its ads. Instead, in a bizarre approach, it opted to effectively affirm the homophobia of the swing voters it was courting. An ad called "Conversation," featuring two female friends looking at family photos over coffee, typified the effort:

Woman 1: And here's our niece Maria and her partner, Julie, at their wedding.

Woman 2: Listen. Honestly? I just don't know how I feel about this same-sex-marriage thing.

Woman 1: No. It's OK. And I really think it's fine if you don't know how you feel. But are you willing to eliminate rights and have our laws treat people differently?

Woman 2: No!

The awkward ads alienated gay activists. Robin Tyler, one of the lead plaintiffs in the marriage case that reached the state Supreme Court, describes the approach of No on Prop 8 as "if we hide, they'll give us our rights." The campaign, she suggests, could have picked up a few pointers from the ballot initiative to reform factory farming: "When they were trying to pass Prop 2," she asks, "did they hide the chickens?"

Even Patrick Guerriero, who took the reins of the campaign in October, admits that the early communications strategy was disastrous. "Those ads were perfect," he says, "if there wasn't an opponent."

But there was an opponent — and Schubert quickly took advantage of the weak ads to turn gay marriage into a referendum on education and parental rights. One spot featured a young Hispanic girl coming home to tell her mother, "Guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!" Schubert drove home the theme again with an ad highlighting a field trip by San Francisco first-graders to see their lesbian teacher get married.

The ads were misleading but devastating. Within two weeks, the Yes campaign turned a double-digit deficit in the polls into a 15-point lead. Worse, the Yes side began October with $12.8 million in the bank to spend on advertising, while the No campaign had only $1.8 million. "Our filing was so large that it literally crashed the secretary of state's Web page," boasts Schubert. "They couldn't accept it — there were over 5,000 pages of contributors." At that point, the No on Prop 8 campaign had only 6,000 donors. "We did not have the cash we needed," concedes Kors, the leader of the No on Prop 8 executive committee.

The numbers spurred a major shake-up of the No campaign, which called in Guerriero, formerly executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, to take the helm. Guerriero thought the campaign was effectively lost, but he was determined to "scramble back" — to narrow the margin of defeat and thus demonstrate progress over 2000, when California voters first outlawed gay marriage by a margin of 23 points.

And then something extraordinary happened. "Once the progressive community was told, 'We're in the fight of our lives, and we're losing,' they just responded," says Guerriero. "No one can say people didn't wake up." Volunteers from Google and eBay built a Website for online donations; money started flooding in at a clip of up to $1 million a day. By Election Day, the once-poor No campaign had outraised the Yes side by $2 million.

The No campaign also aired its first effective counterattack, running an ad that featured the state school superintendent making clear that gay marriage would not be taught in the schools. "It was their best ad of the campaign by far, but it was very, very late for them to react," says Schubert. The No campaign also filmed a powerful ad that featured Sen. Dianne Feinstein — perhaps the most popular politician in the state — appealing to voters to "vote against discrimination."

Had the campaign left well enough alone, the Feinstein ad might have done the trick. Instead, with only a week to go before Election Day, it flailed about as crazily as the McCain campaign in search of a message. After running the Feinstein ad for only four days, it recut the spot to incorporate other big-name endorsers, garbling the message. It also filmed a counterproductive ad narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that, in the course of 30 seconds, tried to connect the gay-marriage struggle to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the housing-rights struggles of Armenians in California and bans on interracial marriage in the South.

"The ad was a huge fucking mistake," says a top Democratic campaign strategist. "Any objective consultant who has done any research on this issue will tell you that the struggle for marriage equality is not accepted by minority communities to be equivalent to the civil rights movement. In fact, it pisses minorities off."

It didn't help that Barack Obama refused to support gay marriage, and voiced his opposition to Prop 8 as a narrow constitutional matter. Indeed, Obama was so weak on the issue that Schubert highlighted the candidate's opposition to gay marriage in a mailer targeting African-Americans, and used his voice in a statewide robo-call. "We were able to quote him directly on the core issue in direct mail and in calls at the end of the campaign," says Schubert. When African-Americans in California went to the polls on Election Day, 70 percent of them voted to ban gay marriage.

Civil rights groups in California have already petitioned the state Supreme Court to toss out Prop 8, arguing that revising the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature. The fight has also gone national. On November 10th, the gay-rights group Equality Utah announced that it would draft legislation in Utah to legalize civil unions — a direct challenge to the Mormon church, which claims to support such relationships. And on November 15th, after only eight days of organizing online, more than 100,000 protesters rallied against Prop 8 in 300 cities across the country.

As the demonstrations suggest, there is a silver lining to the passage of Prop 8. Because it succeeded due to the mistakes and mismanagement of its opponents — rather than deep-seated hostility to gay and lesbian couples — it can be overturned at the ballot box. Since 2000, the margin of voters in the state who oppose gay marriage has plunged from 23 points to only four.

"The speed at which this issue is moving is unprecedented in my personal political experience," says Bill Carrick, a prominent Democratic consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. "Support for gay marriage has moved so far, in such a short period of time, that I think we're going to look back at Prop 8 as an aberration. History is headed in a very pro-gay-marriage direction, and it probably is going to happen in a much shorter time than anybody imagines."

From The Archives Issue 1067: December 11, 2008