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Same-Sex Setback

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"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."

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