Frank Schubert, president of Schubert-Flint Public Affairs, and Jeff Flint, a partner in the firm, reveal just how they won the battle to pass Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in California just months after being ruled a “fundamental right” by the California Supreme Court. If you can stifle your seething rage for just a few moments, there’s quite a few instructive lessons to be learned from their approach.
Schubert (who, incidentally, has a lesbian sister) and Flint portray the campaign as a plucky upstart facing a difficult battle in their article in Politics Magazine:
“A survey released by the Field Institute in mid-September showed that fully 55 percent of likely voters were opposed to Prop 8, with just 38 percent in favor. The political elite all but wrote off Proposition 8 as being dead once the Field Poll was published. To make matters worse for us, less than a week after the Field Poll came out, the No on 8 campaign began its television advertising in the state’s major media markets.”
How did they win?
Rally and engage the base. Schubert-Flint made sure that those who would naturally support a ban on gay marriage were informed and empowered.
“We worked hard during this period to urge our supporters to have faith that Prop 8 could still be enacted despite what they saw on the news. We organized countless meetings and conference calls of pastors and other campaign leaders. And we restructured our online presence and delivered a stream of messages to supporters designed to keep them informed and engaged.”
Raise doubts, broaden the implications. It was important to make gay marriage not just an issue about gays getting married, but about religious freedom, an ‘activist’ Court, and the potential threats to children. The more the water was muddied, the more opportunities voters had to latch onto a rationale for voting for the ban that wasn’t purely homophobic.
“We strongly believed that a campaign in favor of traditional marriage would not be enough to prevail. We needed to convince voters that gay marriage was not simply “live and let live”—that there would be consequences if gay marriage were to be permanently legalized. But how to raise consequences when gay marriage was so recently legalized and not yet taken hold? We made one of the key strategic decisions in the campaign, to apply the principles of running a “No” campaign—raising doubts and pointing to potential problems—in seeking a “Yes” vote. As far as we know, this strategic approach has never before been used by a Yes campaign.”
Engage and use the grassroots. While grassroots volunteers are not trained campaigners, they have heart and personal messages that they can take to individual voters and by using the Internet to coordinate these efforts, activists had maximum impact. For ‘Yes on 8’, this was a big advantage.
“Our ability to organize a massive volunteer effort through religious denominations gave us a huge advantage, and we set ambitious goals: to conduct a statewide Voter ID canvass of every voter; to distribute 1.25 million yard signs and an equal number of bumper strips; to have our volunteers re-contact every undecided, soft yes and soft no voter; and to have 100,000 volunteers, ?ve per voting precinct, working on Election Day to make sure every identi?ed Yes on 8 voter would vote. All of these goals, and more, were achieved.
We built a campaign volunteer structure around both time-honored campaign grassroots tactics of organizing in churches, with a ground-up structure of church captains, precinct captains, zip code supervisors and area directors; and the latest Internet and web-based grassroots tools. Our campaign website was rebuilt to serve as an incredibly effective organizing tool. Online volunteer sign-ups were immediately sent electronically to the appropriate ZIP code supervisor for follow up. We set up a statewide voter ?le with remote access for regional volunteer leaders, which allowed them to input results for canvassing efforts remotely, and then download and print updated voter lists.”
Money, money, Mormon money. Not that there was any doubt, but the Yes on 8 campaign freely admits that an infusion of Mormon cash did a great deal in helping to bolster the campaign.
“By this time, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had endorsed Prop 8 and joined the campaign executive committee. Even though the LDS were the last major denomination to join the campaign, their members were immensely helpful in early fundraising, providing much-needed contributions while we were busy organizing Catholic and Evangelical fundraising efforts.
Ultimately, we raised $22 million from July through September with upwards of 40 percent coming from members of the LDS Church. Our fundraising operation also relied heavily on small contributions from some 60,000 individual donors via an extensive direct mail operation, and an extraordinarily effective online fundraising campaign. When we ?led our ?nance report electronically with the secretary of state, it was more than 5,000 pages thick and crashed the ?ling system. We ultimately raised more than $5 million online, and $3 million from direct mail.”
Having an ineffective opponent helps, too. ‘Yes on 8’s’ own internal polling showed that their ability to define the issues gave them an advantage, but that advantage began to evaporate once No on 8 released an ad calling their tactics “shameful.” Up until then, the moral high-ground belonged to Yes on 8, but they had already effectively framed the debate.
“The response to our ads from the No on 8 campaign was slow and ineffectual. They enlisted their allies in the education system to claim that we were lying. They held press conferences with education leaders to dismiss our claims. They got newspaper editorial boards to condemn the ads as false. What they never did do, because they couldn’t do, was contest the accuracy of what had happened in Massachusetts.
Finally, three weeks after the Yes on 8 campaign had introduced education as a message, the No on 8 campaign responded with what would be their best ad of the campaign. It featured State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell claiming that Prop 8 had nothing to do with education and that our use of children in our ads was “shameful.” This in-your-face response, much delayed but very effective, foretold the ?nal period of the campaign—it would be largely about education.”
A Google surge. You may remember that even gay websites running Google Ads were running ‘Yes on 8’ ads in the final days of the campaign. That’s the power of internet advertising dollars at work.
“As the campaign headed into the final days, we launched a “Google surge.” We spent more than a half-million dollars to place ads on every single website that had advertising controlled by Google. Whenever anyone in California went online, they saw one of our ads in the ?nal two days of the election.”
Schubert-Flint sum up their winning plan like this:
“Prop 8 didn’t win because of the Mormons. It won because we created superior advertising that denied the issues on our terms; because we built a diverse coalition; and, most importantly, because we activated that coalition at the grassroots level in a way that had never before been done.
The Prop 8 victory proves something that readers of Politics magazine know very well: campaigns matter.”
Sounds about right. While some ‘No on 8’ leaders still complain that the only reason they didn’t have enough cash, the fact remains that neither did the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign when it started. Certainly, big donations from churches helped, but by activating and empowering their base, they were able to raise millions of small donations, Obama-style. With that money, they focused on making a reasoned moral argument for banning gay marriage through advertising, one-on-one canvassing across the whole state and employing a massive grassroots get-out-the-vote effort.
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: Political campaigns are not about fairness or the inherent righteousness of your cause, they’re about winning. Prop 8.’s fate is now in the hands of the California Supreme Court, but with more than half a dozen gay marriage or civil unions bills making their way through state legislatures everywhere from Hawaii to Maine, the gay community needs to work smarter, not harder to win their equal rights. You can look at the opponent’s playbook and scorn it, or you can take it and make it your own.