Sunday, November 8, 2009

VIDEO: NOM's Maggie Gallagher Rubs In Our Defeat In Maine, But Sadly, She's Correct

I'd rather suffer severe rope burn than listen to Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, but sometimes the fight for equal rights demands we listen to our opposition to better counter them.

Only if I had a spoonful of sugar handy . . .

The hardest part about what Maggie says is that a chunk of it is true. We had a big leading advantage in Maine and we lost it.

So what are we doing wrong?

As I have said before, Equality Maine has done amazing work in the state, building a strong grassroots infrastructure while doing the everyday task of educating residents on LGBT issues.

On top of that, the NO on 1 campaign did learn from the defeat in California and applied most but not all the lessons learned expediently.

We still lost. And hearing Maggie point out these facts is equivalent to sticking ice picks in my ears.

It's a sad fact we need to face: our messaging is not working.

Terry Leftgoff, who formerly served as the highest ranking openly gay officer of the California Democratic Party and oversaw numerous campaign efforts, wrote in an email (shared with permission by Rex Wockner) about our messaging from the NO on 1 campaign:
"I believe it is clear: we must radically reinvent our messaging, tactics and strategy...

"Most importantly, there was no effective response to predictable lies about children and schools, the identical lies made a year earlier during Prop 8.

"The response both times was to validate the implied homophobia by denying/agreeing that we don't teach about marriage or gays in school: 'Oh no, we should never talk about those gays because they're bad.' This validates and surrenders an emotionally charged subtext with an specious intellectual response; taken in isolation, it is a loser. Rather we need to develop strong proactive and affirmative messages that completely redirect the debate and reach higher to universal American principles and human respect. And we need to hit early and hit hard."
I have to agree with what Terry says and I have been saying so for some time. Again, this is not a criticism of the amazing, hardworking people behind the NO on 1 campaign, but an evaluation of us as a whole, the LGBT population and allies, as we struggle to define the message that we know innately - that we deserve equal rights - and translate it to the masses so that they will be motivated to vote with us.

It's no easy task. Otherwise, we wouldn't have lost 31 states. But where do we begin?

"There are a number of ways to accomplish this," Terry believes. "One way is to effectively portray the real effect denigration and rejection has on us and our children. It is about gut empathy. Many voters can get that and it is completely missing from our arsenal."

Just as the Yes on 1 campaign showed children acting sad for the cameras while at school, "suffering" from "homosexual marriage being forced upon them," we need to show our very real families really suffering from being treated unequally and forced to live with state sanctioned discrimination.

I believe New Jersey takes a big step in the right direction with their new marriage ads. This ad is so powerful, so raw, it should have been our strategy from day one.

(View the other ad)

The direction this ad takes can also be applied to countering the opposition's school argument about how LGBT students and children of LGBT families suffer at schools simply because of who they are.

We have lost in 31 states. But you can view that from a different angle. The ball is in our court in 31 states. We can now choose when to go back to the ballot. This time we won't be on the defense, forced to forge a campaign with little time. We'll be on the offense. We can now learn from our 31 defeats and turn them into victories. It takes time, diligence, sweat and tears - it will be scary, but we can do it. The power is on our side now.

We must use this power wisely.


EVENT: Learn about messaging from some of our top experts. Vote For Equality is hosting, "Why Messaging Matters." Limited seating. First come first serve. Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7pm.

I highly recommend this. It will dissect our campaign ads and the opposition's and evaluate what worked and what didn't. Arm yourself with this knowledge. It's so important moving forward a this crossroad in our movement.


  1. I agree with Terry Leftgoff that we need to re-frame our debate. It's a very insightful comment from him but I disagree that the NJ ads are a step in the right direction. It's still a play nice, be nice ask that has zero urgency and does nothing to re-frame the debate. You and Loch should hit up Vote for Equality's messaging training this Wednesday to start the conversation. I'm trying to start a Facebook group from a few of the people that attended the messaging training this past Thursday.

  2. I like the New Jersey ads, especially the one by the straight Black woman who ridicules people who think we should not be allowed to marry.

    But some time ago Nate Silver posted some insights about polling that we should be using in our ads. He pointed out that when the question is posed, "Should the government prevent same-sex couples from marrying" Or "Should same-sex couples be banned from marrying," something like 60% of the responsdents say no. His point was that the question should be reframed in terms of why should the government prevent us from having rights.

    We should use this insight in our ads. Instead of please let us marry because we are such nice people, the message should be, why should the government stop us from exercising our rights.

    I think framing the issue this way is likely to cut into the Republican opposition to same-sex marriage, for it appeals to libertarian impulses. The right to marry is a matter of freedom and liberty. It is not a reward for being nice and cuddly.

  3. The reason I mention it is that Dave Fleischer has been saying the same thing you've been saying that we know what their message will be (protect your kids from the gays) and have been working with Vote for Equality to build data and analysis of the type of messaging that is needed to prevent us from getting killed on the "air". Yet, I recently found out that Protect Maine Equality completely dismissed the LGBT Mentoring Project's attempts to share lessons learned over their ad campaign. That's why the Maine ads ended up the way they did even though the Mentoring Project was a part of the Maine "coalition". Whether we go in 2010 or 2012, there is a lot of analysis that can be done to make sure we have a body of best practices to work with. Whether or not that gets backing by decision makers next time, we don't have as much control over. We know anti-gay forces have their research already figured out with their ah-ha argument. We need our smart folks on this.

  4. @Jay Jonson: I love all the work that Nate Silver does but polling makes an assumption that we're asking the right questions. It's very safe in that it inherently reaffirms where our own opinions about our strategy are currently and in the past but rarely helps in revealing paradigm-shift strategies that are unseen and/or yet to be asked about. That's where focus groups helped Schubert Flint Public Affairs. Terry Leftgoff's quote started of saying that we should be clear that we need to radically reinvent ourselves from Prop 8. I believe this comment is more in-line with Terry Leftoff's intent than Nate Silver's:

    Nate Silver's question is still a play nice, can you not ban our same-sex marriage please. In my experience with canvassing with Vote for Equality, the training is very clear that we you don't do wishy, washy asks. Not this kinda, sorta' maybe, can you help us out by volunteering/donating if you sorta' have the extra time maybe ask. The FAB (Friend, Activist, Banker) method involves creating a positive connection, creating urgency and then hitting them with a specific ask and not letting them off the hook with a easy response. Make them think about their priorities. The urgency and the strong ask is what we need and I haven't seen that at all.

  5. Alan, I think you and Terry Leftgoff are right. We certainly need to learn from our mistakes. We should not validate the homophobic assumptions about "teaching homosexuality" and we need to send a clear and unambiguous message that gay rights are American rights and that it is unAmerican to deny us the right to marry. I think the second NJ ad does this effectively. One of the very last No on 1 ads did too, but I think that one was too little, too late. It should have come earlier in the campaigh.

  6. Alan, one more thing that I inadvertently left out of the last comment. If the Nate Silver kind of ad I was speaking of is framed right it can be very effective: "Why the hell should gay people be prevented from marrying? It is unAmerican to deny equal rights under the law!" It seems to me that kind of message is not playing nice; it is demanding equal rights under the law.

  7. Hi Alan,
    We're going to be there. I really like what Fleischer has to say, and you're right, I have been echoing him.

    However, I do believe the NJ ads are a step in the right direction. They're more real and specific instead of platitudes that exalt equality as a value but don't have a grounding.

    Do I think more should be done? Do I think the ads can add more urgency? Do I think our messaging needs an overhaul? DEFINITELY.

  8. Although the language isn't quite right, this Austalian comedy piece totally has the appropriately radical re-framing that the New Jersey ad does not:

  9. We do need to re-message, but not the way this post suggests. Most of No on 1's TV campaign was about generating empathy and urging Maine voters not to let outsiders make our children feel ashamed of their families. That was the theme of most of their ads from the Sam Putnam ad forward. So it is fairly ridiculous for anyone to say that this is what was missing.

    A campaign based on appeals to fairness, empathy or justice, if competently executed, gets you to a maximum of 48% in a blue state. This is the lesson we should learn.

    Beyond that, if we are to win, we need to appeal to naked self-interest, not morals. That is exactly what Schubert does with his focus on purported "consequences" of SSM.

    It doesn't matter whether most people believe that those consequences are likely. So long as they think the consequences are possible, and so long as there are no personal consequences to voting against gay marriage, the anti-gay marriage will win every time. Even if there is only a 1% chance that there will be a loss of religious liberty or a loss of parental control over curriculum, it is more than a self-interested voter will bear *if* there is no selfish reason to vote for gay marriage. The thinking is: sure I would vote for the gays if it didn't cost me anything, but I am not risking anything for their benefit.

    So the task at hand is to come up with one or more compelling selfish reasons for the majority to support gay marriage. Assuming competent execution, that should get you above 50%.

  10. I've thought a lot about this, and I think that the criticisms directed toward the defensive approach to fighting these battles is valid. We need to stop playing nice.

    In Chinese martial arts, the most effective attack deflects the enemy's energy and then turns it back on them. In the context of the marriage fight, this comes down to using their words against them. NOM and Bishop Malone here in Maine have said their beef is over the use of the word "marriage", so I say take the state out of the marriage business altogether. Marriages are done by the church (I was married by a Unitarian minister, so that makes me as married as Bishop Malone is not) and the state recognizes "civil unions" for everyone.

    Not that they won't howl over that, but we co-opt their language, talk about "preserving religious marriage", "no special rights", "keeping the state out of the church's business". In short, we take the same language they've been using in these fights, turn it around on them, and cram it down their throats.

    If we basically use the same message they've been pushing but move it in a different direction, I think we stand a much better chance. With Question 1, all we would have needed was to sway a little over 3% of the vote in the other direction. Plus it reaffirms separation of church and state, which we absolutely need if we're ever to move forward.

  11. It is time to take the gloves off folks. Yes we can have the soft ads showing the public who we really are. But we need to fight the ugly ads against us by going after those who sponsor them. For example what moral standing does the catholic church have when i has shuttled pedophile priests around to hide what was going on? These points need to be driven home. We allow ourselves to be denigrated in such vile fashion but we don't fight back. That is a function of our internalized homophobia. Religious folk are no better or worse than gay folk. If we truly accept that we can defend ourselves and effectively point out the moral failings of our opponents.

  12. @Anonymous

    "So the task at hand is to come up with one or more compelling selfish reasons for the majority to support gay marriage. Assuming competent execution, that should get you above 50%."

    I agree. I know you said you didn't necessarily agree with what I suggested in this post, but we do agree on this. I've been saying for quite some time that we have to give voters a selfish reason to get up off the coach and vote in our favor. Because asking them to do it for us is not working.

    However, though the NJ ads do not do this, it does raise the stakes. It shows actual suffering. (Why do people give to the Children's Christian Fund in droves? Because CCF is amazing at hitting people with their emotions, showing suffering, and asking these rich Americans to help.) Maybe the selfish reason for people to vote is to get rid of their guilt? (Hmm, maybe we can learn from the Catholic Church on how to make people feel guilty. Ugh.)

    Anyway . . .

    How? What exactly is that message that will drive people to the polls? After 31 tries (for marriage), we still haven't cracked it. But the brainstorming going on here is good.

    And by the way, I fixed the link to the "Why Messaging Matters" workshop. Sorry about that.

  13. I agree with Skinny Lover that we should be far more aggressive in attacking our enemies.

    One lesson we can learn from Maine is that while their central campaign excluded the most notorious haters and put on a "nice tolerant" front, they nevertheless let them conduct scurrilous attacks on us and even invited real scum into the state to attack us. Perhaps we should have invited some anti-clerical groups or victim survivors spokespeople into the state to attack the Roman Catholic Church's handling of the priest abuse scandal and openly question how these people can claim to know anything about sexual morality.

    We certainly have to learn from them how to launder the money we give to campaigns, which are non-deductible on our income taxes. We need to partner up with organizations like the MCC or the Unitarian/Universalist Church to serve the same function that the Catholic Church did in Maine: we make tax-deductible donations to them and they immediately give it to the campaign for our rights.

  14. the advantage or lead we had going into the Maine fight is largely a myth.

    what basis is there for believing we were ever in the lead among likely voters? a scattering of contradictory polls? we knew those would not be reliable. the strong margins by which marriage passed the legislature? the CA legislature had also passed it by strong margins and we know the public always lags elected and appointed officials on this issue.

    on the other hand, consider the sobering numbers from the 2005 referendum vote on whether the repeal Maine's gay anti-disrimination act. only 55% voted to uphold that law which merely prevents gays being unfairly denied jobs or housing. was it really reasonable to believe that just 4 years later 51% would vote to uphold full marriage equality.

    i think a lot of people just convinced themselves early on that we had the advatange in Maine, but that was almost certainly never the case.

    that being said, post mortems are still useful and coming up with better ways to confront the opposition persistant lies would obviously help.

  15. i hope the meeting on wednesday about messaging is streamed on the web. if that doesn't happen, then hopefully someone will take detailed notes and post them to the web after the forum.

  16. Phil:

    I was "anonymous" above who made the point about re-focusing on the majority's selfish interests.

    How do we do it?

    The first step is to do exactly what Frank Schubert did over the summer of 2008. He conducted a focus group where they tested various themes. It was at that focus group in CA that he discovered that the schools issue "worked". It didn't have to be a realistic argument, just barely plausible.

    I think if you can find one major fault with No on 1, it was the failure of this Greenberg polling outfit (which made a small fortune off of this campaign) to focus group this kind of argument. I am not sure if they were No on 8's polling firm, but it wouldn't surprise me.

    The focus group will tell us what works. But I am fairly certain that "self-interest" is NOT defined by something fuzzy like guilt avoidance. I strongly suspect that it needs to involve something real: money, property, safety, or a specific, identifiable liberty.

    Also, I think that the fear of the negative works better than the promise of a positive. In other words, the argument ideally should be "if you vote against equality, X bad thing will happen to you" as opposed to "if you vote for equality Y good thing will happen to you."

    I don't know if we can get negative-based argument, but I know that we can get a positive one, and that may be enough. What is it? I think it is the promise of economic development and jobs. There have been a number of studies in the last few years showing that economic renewal is often preceded by an influx of young singles and "creative communities," specifically including gays. Creating welcoming environments for these communities is an important part of successfully competing with other jurisdictions for these communities and thus laying the groundwork for development and economic growth. To back this up, we should make good use of the positions of major employers, as we just saw in WA, where Microsoft, Google, Boeing, and Nike all supported the "everything but marriage law". These global companies were not supporting the law to be nice or because they care about the WA-equivalents of Sam Putnam. Indeed, the law would actually impose additional costs on them. But they supported it b/c they know it makes good economic sense for them to enhance their potential skilled employee base.

    I think that is the beginning of a selfish argument for gay marriage. Obviously, whether it works or not should be determined not by people's hunches, but by the focus group. Is there an iron-clad argument that gay marriage sustains economic growth? No, but just as with the schools issue, it doesn't have to be iron-clad, only plausible.

  17. We need to stop the "Gay marriage will be taught to our children in schools" meme in it's tracks. I posted a comment like this on a S4MM thread:

    "Children learn about gays from their peers, their family and friends, their church and community already. The outcome of Question 1 will not change that a bit."

    The fact that this was quickly removed tells me they had some concern about this statement of fact.

    Our response, "no they're not, no they're not" only tacitly affirms their premise that there is something wrong with gays and they are right that children shouldn't know about them. That played right into their hands.

    The proper response is "Oh, yah? So what," and point out that children already know about gays from the other sources I mentioned. Gays have nothing to be ashamed about and don't need to be hidden from anyone.

    It might also be mentioned that putting Question 1 on the ballot did more to bring gays and gay marriage to children's attention than anything gays alone could have done. The barrage of TV ads and the many discussions around dinner tables throughout Maine wouldn't have taken place otherwise.

    There is nothing wrong with gays or their wish to marry the person they love. They don't need to be hidden from anyone including children.

  18. I think there is a need to step beyond "re-framing the debate" and instead, find the emotional trigger that will move the 'majority' to act to protect the 'minority'.

    As sort of an example, I think that "white guilt" played a bigger part of the Civil Rights Movement as anything else. I think the majority in the 60's/70's were as moved AGAINST the KKK as much, if not more so, than for "black power".

    I think that instead of a defensive posture about "how it hurts our gay families and relationships", it is more important to expose, or more properly, define the opposition as wanting to control relationships via the bedroom.

    We can not be afraid to address the "elephant in the room" that Same Sex Marriage does NOT mean homosexual intercourse is going to be taught along side sexual reproduction education. THAT is the fear that N.O.M. is tapping into and it is the fear that WE are tap dancing around and not addressing.

    That said, finding a way to tap into the majority's bedroom-libertarian fears, without offering up ammunition, is the challenge.

  19. Excellent discussion, and for all the kudos I've seen posted re the Maine effort, from a distance I still found the ads that I saw online wanting and for my taste, not confrontational enough to refute the essentially visceral/icky argument of "protect the children" and "they'll teach homosexuality in our schools!"

    The correct answer is "YES! We need to teach about homosexuality in our schools!" And not shy away from it. Every time I heard that argument, my stomach churns. I remember my sexual awakening (I'm now 50), and how traumatic it was. Yes, children need to be aware that they might be gay -- and it's OK, and nothing to be ashamed of and that they will be afforded all of their civil rights.

    In one respect, it's a compelling public health issue (cite LGBT suicide, substance abuse problems, children kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, longer-term, psychological and emotional damage that affects education and income, etc.).

    What if the ads showed some real LGBT youth that committed suicide? THAT would be powerful (with families' permission). What the right does, the continued denial of our rights and equality has very, very real costs. It hurts people. And we cannot be afraid to show the hurt and the suffering -- especially the "children".

    In my opinion, this needs to be tackled head-on, aggressively, and in a very forthright manner. Everyone of the Maine ads should have been rebutted by the heart and gut wrenching real stories of how society has failed and hurts -- even KILLS -- LGBT youth. Blood is on their hands, not ours - and it needs to show!!!!

  20. @Steven

    Tsk, tsk for posting anonymously. How would I know it was you? :)

    Sounds like Michigan Speaker Pro Tempore Pam Byrnes is agreeing with your economical argument. She just introduced a repeal of the state's same-sex marriage ban.

    She was quoted as saying, "This is ... an economic issue. Young people want to go to cities and communities that are progressive, accepting of people and have good quality of life. That's something that Kalamazoo is now going to have."

    Notice her focus on younger people.

    One of the messages we need to hone for future campaigns has to gear towards motivating the younger vote. They're notorious for not voting (the Obama election was historical because they did turn out - which makes Prop 8's passage even that more grating).

  21. The more I think about it, the more I am sure that this or a similar theme is the key to winning, when added to the existing arguments.

    If you line up real corporate players, it is very credible. Get Michael Bloomberg (marriage supporter), Bill Gates (R71 donor), Steve Ballmer (R71 donor), Larry Paige and Sergei Brin (No on 8 donors, R71 supporters) and local employers to make a statement or a TV spot and you now have a substantial selfish reason for people to support us. If it does nothing other than to reduce the GOP vote from 70+% anti-equality to 60+%, then we win.

  22. I think you can win some people over by pointing out that many of the people opposing marriage equality are also opposed to divorce, and family planning, and often even marriages outside of their own religion.

    That's how you make the stakes real for the straight majority: make it clear that THEIR marriages ARE under attack, but by the people who want to prevent others from marrying. If the opponents of marriage equality can stop gay people from marrying, what's to stop them from banning any marriage they don't like?

    It's not enough by itself, but in combination with other tactics it would help gain majority support for equality.

  23. We need more diverse arguments and tactics. The warm and fuzzy ads work with some people; economic development ads will work with others; libertarian ads will work with still others, especially if they are framed by pointing fingers at the intolerant Churches and say, "How dare these people take away equal rights under the law"; ads that ridicule our opponents, "You'd be an idiot not to think people should not be able to marry the one they love"; and ads that rebut the "homosexuality will be taught in the schools" ads of our opponents. I think the demographic that is movable on the issue are libertarian Republicans, that is why I think we really need to hone in on the question of equal rights under the law as being a cornerstone of democracy and a protection against governmental (and religious) interference with private lives.

  24. Add in a nice, tossed pie-in-the-face of Maggie Gallagher (a la Anita Bryant!) and you've got a campaign with balls! ;)

    Seriously, I think that kind of passion is what is missing right now. Where is the vitriol from OUR side? Lobbyists and focus groups may think the SMM campaigns are kinder, gentler and more mature and appealing to the "great undecideds" (or something?!), but it isn't working as much as some good old in your face anger would! IMHO...