National Affairs: Same-Sex Setback
Schubert put Mormon volunteers to work in an expansive field campaign modeled on the effort his business partner, Jell 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 anil 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.