WASHINGTON — The surprise sweep for marriage equality efforts at the polls in 2012 came after a dramatic shift in the television ads their backers ran — a change that came about after a yearlong research effort to crack the code of previously successful ads run by marriage-equality opponents that focused on "gay marriage" being taught in schools.
Among the key changes were a shift away from talk of "rights" to a focus on committed relationships; a decision to address "values" directly as being learned at home; and an attempt to give voters "permission" to change their minds, according to elements of the research shared with BuzzFeed.
The research was "instrumental in helping us figure out our path," said Zach Silk, who served as the campaign manager to approve Washington's Referendum 74.
The research was sponsored by Third Way — a centrist Democratic think tank — that conducted an extended round of surveys beginning in September 2010 "aimed at answering a single question: How do we most effectively persuade people in the middle to support relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples, including marriage?"
National groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry have highlighted their engagement, direct giving, and fund-raising for the states' efforts — which were significant — noting longtime partnerships and support provided throughout the states. The national groups also have been careful to credit state organizations with tremendous leadership in getting the volunteer base and coalition support necessary to win their ballot measures and for addressing the specifics of the states’ dynamics, from Maryland and Washington, where referenda on marriage laws were passed, to Maine, where a marriage equality initiative was approved, to Minnesota, where a marriage amendment was defeated for only the second time.
Each group ran a different campaign, based on the local demographics, geography, and past experience. Washington advocates, in 2009, had succeeded in approving a referendum to allow the state’s domestic partnership law to go into effect. In Maine, also in 2009, a referendum on a marriage equality law passed by the legislature resulted in the law being rejected by the voters. In Minnesota, advocates had time to prepare, as the measure was put on the 2012 ballot in spring 2011. People in Maryland had been engaged on the issue for more than a year as well, as the legislature had considered a marriage equality bill in 2011 before passing it in 2012.
Faith and, particularly in Maryland, black communities were engaged directly. Fund-raising and field operations were systematic and far outpaced past efforts of marriage equality supporters and this year's efforts by opponents. Social media, in its infancy in 2008, was a key part of campaigns' and outside engagement. President Obama and the Democratic Party, along with prominent Republicans and straight sports stars, were speaking out in support of marriage equality. And, it was the fifth federal election held in the country since some of its residents were legally able to marry someone of the same sex.
All of those very big changes since California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008 could have made the difference in the four states this time around.
But, for those who have been watching the campaigns — including HRC's new president, Chad Griffin — there was another change too: the ad campaigns.
At a post-election wrap-up on LGBT issues organized by the Williams Institute on November 13, Griffin — who lived in California before returning to DC earlier this year to run HRC — talked about how slow the campaign in California had been to respond to the Proposition 8 campaign's "Princess" ad, which featured a child talking about how she was taught in school that a "prince married a prince" and that she "can marry a princess."
This time around, however, the research conducted behind the scenes by Third Way provided "instrumental" tools for marriage equality supporters, enabling the campaigns to be prepared to respond quickly to the ads should opponents run them again. Third Way conducted four rounds of research, from psychological research to focus group–type message testing to national polling, in its effort.
So, what did Third Way find? A year before the 2012 election, Third Way had completed a confidential report — provided exclusively to BuzzFeed following the election — purporting to provide "The Answer to the Middle’s Questions on Marriage for Gay Couples." This was the starting point, multiple states' campaign managers said, for their own state-specific research.
Third Way's report detailed:
We learned after three years of exhaustive qualitative and quantitative research that those in the middle are grappling with a series of unresolved, conflicting internal values and complex beliefs when it comes to marriage. ...
Those in the middle are not fully resolved on what marriage would mean for kids—not the kids of gay couples, but their own children. Will values about sex and marriage be taught in the home or elsewhere? And they have yet to reconcile their desire to be fair and inclusive toward gay couples with their religious convictions. Can I still be faithful to my religious beliefs and open to marriage for gay couples?
The six key findings highlighted in the November 2011 document were:
• Commitment trumps rights, a point made in prior research by Freedom to Marry as well: “Leading with commitment will show the middle that gay people want to join the institution of marriage, not change it.”
• Kids move voters: “In our past qualitative research, we found that underlying these concerns about children are deeply emotional fears about loss of parental control. These fears were also evident in the poll data.”
• The home is our turf; schools are their turf: “When compared directly to other possible responses to attacks around children, parents teaching core values ranks highest in persuasiveness.”
• On kids — turn down the heat: “One effective way to do that is to remind those in the middle of something they already believe to be true — that 'kids will be kids,' and in reality, they are much more interested in other things than they are in whether gay couples are allowed to marry.”
• Give people permission to change their minds about why gay couple[s] marry: “Using a messenger who could describe changing his own opinion on why gay couples want to marry modeled this positive evolution on the very issue that is most crucial to gaining support.”
• Religion is a hurdle, not a wall: “[E]ven among those groups in the middle who were more concerned about religion, overwhelming majorities said ‘It is not for me to judge.’ … [I]t is crucial to include reaffirmation of religious liberty protections as a significant part of supporters’ message framework.”
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics at Third Way, told BuzzFeed, "We worked with Freedom to Marry and others to share it with the campaigns right at the beginning of their getting organized," noting that they held multi-hour briefings with the various state campaigns.
As expected, the opponents' campaigns ran ads — the same ads, more or less — orchestrated by Frank Schubert, the man behind the California Proposition 8 "Princess" ad.
Prior to the Third Way polling, which came last, a summary of the third stage of the research — the qualitative, small-group research — described the message that "was rated the most effective among all the written messages" in that stage. The message, described in a June 2011 Third Way summary reviewed by BuzzFeed, was:
My name is Bill Stevens. I was brought up thinking that marriage was between a man and a woman, but I came to realize that gay and lesbian people are just born that way. After all, who would choose that harder path? I also know the value of my marriage and the vows we made, so I understand why gays and lesbians would want to make that unique and important commitment, too. I teach my children not to judge others and to practice the Golden Rule. I feel confident that they learn their values from my wife and me and legalizing gay marriage is not going to change that, nor does it threaten my marriage. For all these reasons, I’ve now decided to support marriage for gays and lesbians.
Why did it work? The summary explains, noting, "Participants strongly identified with the journey and positive values components of this message, but they were particularly compelled by the idea that core values are taught at home." The summary also noted, visually, the importance of physically staging ads in the home: "Reinforcing the notion that parents convey values in the home, in conjunction with physically locating the conversation in that safe environment, shifted the dynamic and brought participants back to a more open and supportive place."
In Minnesota, Richard Carlbom ran the campaign to defeat the amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying there. He agreed with Washington State's Silk, telling BuzzFeed, "Doing that research just as Minnesota was being thrust into this conversation and making it available to us, it obviously was really helpful."
Using that as a "starting point," Carlbom said Minnesotans United for All Families was then able to do "a significant amount of additional research ... to further expand Third Way's message" for Minnesota's voters.
Silk said that additional research by Washington United for Marriage enabled the referendum campaign "to find exactly the right key to unlock undecided voters in Washington state."
The impact of Third Way's research is clear when the ads are reviewed.
All four states ran ads using parts of Third Way's messages, with several setting the ads in the home, several talking about the journey to supporting marriage equality, several featuring parents talking about their children, and several talking about values being taught at home.
A week after the election, Griffin said at the Williams Institute event that the smart, quick response of marriage equality supporters to the anti-marriage equality ads this time around was one of the key changes that he saw since 2008.