Same-Sex Setback

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

March 25, 2011 11:59 AM ET

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.

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