First - a few housekeeping items: all of the pictures posted here are free use. Also - George Simpson live-blogged the Equality Summit for an overview and here's Calitics blog about it. The Courage Campaignhas it's own site and here's a pretty good blog about Camp Courage.
Two of the important reports delivered at the Equality Summit are posted on Marriage Equality USA and David Binder's report is on the EQCA website, which also had videos of the summit. Matt Foreman has an excellent analysis of Binder's report on Towleroad entitled "California's Proposition 8 - Ours to Lose? Nope. It Always Was an Uphill Climb."
Before delving into the questions, let me give you some context from the summit.
The first thing that hit me when I walked into the Los Angeles Convention Center was the ghost of last year's California Democratic Convention. The endorsement fight between incumbent state Sen. Carole Migden and challenger Assemblymember Mark Leno, both longtime LGBT leaders, was so nasty there was no endorsement. It was hardball with spikes.
But while many in the Democratic Party and the LGBT community may be used to such infighting - whether it's called the "circular firing squad" or "eating our own" - more and more people are sick and tired of a world in which lying and being mean is acceptable. A world where Rush Limbaugh plays "Another one bites the dust" announcing the death from AIDS of Queen's Freddie Mercury and everyone laughs. It is this world, I think, that Obama voters want changed, as much as a sober return to an America in which the US Constitution matters.
Anxiety hung over the huge summit room where about 400 people gathered looking for answers. Many participants - from fresh-faced new activists to longtimers with serious scars and sharp elbows - are still bleeding internally from the unexpected Prop 8 blow on Election Night.
The loss is still visceral, the grief deep. People expected to win and they are royally pissed off and on a witch hunt looking for someone to blame: first it was African Americans, then Mormons, then Prop 8 donors and now, the gay leaders of the No on Prop 8 campaign. They want to vent; they want to be heard; and they want an apology.
Others, such as the thoughtful young activists from the Equal Roots Coalition in LA, are looking for new ways to win back marriage and further the fight for equality beyond California. They're involved because they are embarrassed by their own complacency during the Prop 8 battle. They remind me of the JFK-inspired young people who joined the Peace Corps and later created the Gay Liberation Front. Perhaps that's why Rex Wockner's tag "Stonewall 2.0" resonates so strongly.
I mention this to perhaps explain why about half the room stood up and applauded wildly after Marriage Equality USA's Molly McKay finished her presentation, representing the "Love Warriors" grassroots who feel profoundly dissed by the campaign.
At Camp Courage the next day, MEUSA's Geoff Scowcraft said he wanted an apology from No on Prop 8 field director Sarah Reece, in particular, for telling MEUSA California chapter leaders that "you're either with us or against us" and that if they mounted an unauthorized outreach effort in their local communities, they would hurt the campaign. (During the summit, Reece basically said that she got her marching orders from No on Prop 8 campaign manager Steve Smith. But Scowcraft said she didn't have to be rude and "offensive.")
Longtime activist Waiyde Palmer told me what was really needed for "closure" was "to hear a simple and clear apology - and once that happens, people will be able to let go and move on."
Half the room also stood up, however, when Jo Hoenninger of the Equality Summit planning committee said that despite the mistakes, Equality California's Executive Director Geoff Kors, LA Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean, National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kendell and the others who gave up their lives to work on the campaign "did the best they could" to defeat Prop 8. Part of the anxiety in the room was wanting to move on but not exactly knowing how.
As moderator of the summit's Q & A session, I should have worn a flack jacket. I was given about 70 questions in advance and then a very thick stack of cards with only 30 minutes to get in as many questions as possible.
I reminded people that Steve Smith was not at the summit - but that he had taken part in a Virtual Town Hall meeting organized by the LA Gay & Lesbian Center where many of these same questions were asked (also by me). And I noted that Michael Fleming of the David Bohnett Foundation was conducting an independent audit (with UCLA) of the campaign. At the end, I gave the stack of questions to Hoenninger who committed to getting them answered and posted on the Equality Summit website.
My opening question was intended to swiftly sum up the campaign so we could spend more time on an analysis. I asked each panelist (which included Kors, Jean, McKay and Reece) for one positive thing, one mistake and one resolution to what appeared to be a rift between the LGBT leadership and the grassroots. I had hoped an apology would have also been forthcoming. But an angry participant yelled out - "Just read the questions!" "Have you heard anyone admit a mistake yet?" I shot back. Not good, I thought, as my old Al Anon kicked in. I relented and asked the questions I selected from the cards.
The "news" from the summit was that Kors and Jean said their "biggest mistake" was conceding so much power to the (straight) campaign manager and not having a gay professional campaign consultant in the room early on when strategic decisions were made.
Jean said that it didn't occur to them that the highly paid professionals who had won other difficult emotional campaigns (such as the parental notification initiatives) would not deliver.
I don't remember if anyone mentioned that NO marriage battle has ever been won at the ballot box, making this a particularly steep climb - Matt Foreman's point cited above.
The one point of consensus was that, as Lorri Jean put it, "we have to find a completely different way" to mount a campaign the next time.
But HOW to do this was left unresolved, though there are serious questions that need to be addressed - especially before backing or withdrawing from an affirmative initiative on the 2010 ballot.
Here are some of the interrelated unresolved questions:
1. Who will head the next campaign?
One of the serious results of the seething anger is that some grassroots people now see LGBT leaders such as Geoff Kors and Lorri Jean as "enemies" or "worthless." In an interview with Rex Wocker, Miki Jackson, who yelled at the panel from the back of the room, called Kors and Kendell "control junkies" and "power junkies" who collect the money and have no accountability to the grassroots. Jackson is not alone in her animosity, much of it also directed at Jean.
Some have called for Kors and Jean to resign or be fired - regardless of how much they personally or through their organizations contributed or raised for the campaign. They are heads of non-profits, the activists say - what do they know or what experience have they had in running political campaigns?
Fair enough - but they were elected to the campaign leadership by representatives from a huge coalition of organizations that came together to fight the initiative in the first place. Since they run, and in some cases, have grown their large organizations in a difficult economic environment and in spite of a hostile federal government that cut grants for eight years - those organizational representatives thought Kors, Jean, Kendell and the others would have the chops to co-run a political campaign that was managed by a political professional.
Mark Leno and others have also noted that while the campaign did not succeed - and in hindsight there's a question about whether it ever would have - the gap was significantly closed between the vote on Prop 22 in 2000 (which passed by 61.4%) and Prop 8 (52%-48%).
But another casualty of the personal attacks could well be the organizations the leaders run - just as the Center's homeless youth services have been extended; EQCA (which underwrote the summit and its travel grants) prepares for its next big Lobby Day in Sacramento; and NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter prepares to argue the marriage case before the California Supreme Court, again.
2. Will we have the campaign we want or the campaign we need and how will that be determined?
One of the key take-away points from the summit was that "marriage is different" from any other initiative campaign. This might seem overly simplistic but it's critical.
There has never been an initiative campaign like Prop 8 before. Prop 209 took away affirmative action from African Americans and Prop 187 took away healthcare and education from children of undocumented immigrants.
But in those cases, the undecided persuadable voters did not change their minds every other day. They could be identified and targeted with specific messages that focus groups said would work, according to identified voter demographics. And they could generally be canvassed with regional outreach programs - while No and Yes Prop 8 voters might live side by side and vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In interviews after the loss, Steve Smith said that the No campaign always knew that 40% of voters would be strongly for Prop 8 and 40% would be strongly against. Their primary target, therefore, was that 20% of undecided voters in the middle. What was different about this campaign, however, is that the 20% in the middle was never "fixed." Instead, voters were "fluid" - sometimes changing their minds daily, depending on commercials and other factors.
What David Binder and political researchers Patrick J. Egan, Ph.D., of New York University, and Kenneth Sherrill, Ph.D., of Hunter College, CUNY point out is that older voters, frequent church goers and Republicans yielded about 50% of the winning Yes vote. But - big number here - Binder says that 73% of Yes voters said that nothing would have changed their mind. That means, Binder told the summit, that in reality there was only a "sliver" of people who could be persuaded to change their votes.
Here's the rub: there were serious red flags that the presumed 20% undecideds were "squishy," as Matt Forman called them - as early as May 2008. Here's part of Jill Darling's synopsis from her May 22, 2008 Los Angeles Times/KTLA polltaken right after the California Supreme Court's marriage decision on May 15:
"As noted above, at this time, 54% of voters would vote for a state constitutional amendment banning marriage, 35% would not, and 10% aren't sure. When you combine the issues of same-sex unions and a possible ban on gay marriage, it is clear that Californians remain somewhat divided over this issue. A slim 27% plurality both support gay marriage and would vote against an amendment to ban it. About 10% don't support marriage - either opting for civil unions or no legal status - but are against a constitutional ban. Two substantial groups are for the amendment at this time - the 21% who also support civil unions and the same proportion who don't want either marriage or civil unions. The "other category" of 14% includes 6% who aren't for same-sex marriage, but aren't sure how they are going to vote on the amendment. A handful (7%) said they support marriage but are going to vote for the amendment."
The LGBT community chose to dismiss the poll - especially after a series of public polls seemed to support our preferred opinion - that gays and lesbians won the right to marry and everyone else enjoyed seeing our joy.
Celinda Lake's internal polls for the No on Prop 8 campaign, however, were up and down. Yes, people were happy that we were happy - but after awhile - enough already with the gay weddings! By the end of June, Geoff Kors started cautioning reporters and others not to put too much stock in the public polls showing that a constitutional marriage amendment would be defeated. Their internal polls were showing that it would still be a close race.
At the summit, Lorri Jean, who was concerned about why the internal polls said one thing while the public polls said another, reminded David Binder that they hired him to do a "confirmation" poll - and his results confirmed Lake's numbers. However, since it is a hard and fast rule that campaigns do not release their internal polls lest they give the opposition information, Kors, Kendell and Jean wrapped their rousing speeches in cautionary notes about working hard to defeat the initiative and being prepared to go on if it passed.
Take the celebratory Equality California dinner on Aug. 2, 2008, for instance, seven weeks after marriage became legal. Kate Kendell said:
"I think we will defeat Prop 8 - I think there is every reason why we should defeat it. But no one can be cavalier. No one can be complacent. No one can be sanguine about it. It will take everything we have. People will have to write the biggest checks they've ever written, devote more volunteer hours than they ever have, have more difficult conversations than they've ever had for 90 days. For 90 days we have to give it everything. And if we do, we will beat this thing."
Others expressed their concerns more quietly. "I'm hopeful [about the defeat of Prop 8], but at the same time, I'm nervous," TV and film producer Craig Zaden told me. "I feel like the country is so strange right now and I feel that nothing is for certain."
But for the most part, the LGBT community was getting only positive poll numbers - and without defying campaign conventional wisdom and releasing the internal poll numbers with a full explanation early on - complacency set in. Indeed, I received emails saying, "If they ask you for money, don't give them any. It's a trick. We're going to win - and they just want this money for their own organizations."
At the summit, strategic communications expert Chad Griffin of Griffin/Schake (he's responsible for the sizable straight contributions of Brad Pitt, Steve Bing and others) underscored the imperative of a having a time-tested, scientifically sound, research-drive campaign. That, by the way, is how to reach straight people who may contribute funding - showing them the empirical data.
Others, however, such as longtime activist Robin Tyler, suggested the LGBT community and any campaign it spawns must shirk the old professional campaign models in favor of listening to "our gut" - what we know in our hearts will win in the end - a campaign that shows love. Yes, a marriage campaign is different - so let it BE different - let it defy conventional wisdom and break new ground based on the commonly understood affirmation of love.
By the end of the summit, some who had embraced professional polling to the exclusion of all other suggestions were warming to the idea of trying a two-prong strategy of some sort, while grassroots activists were softened their hardened position against such research.
3. Who chooses the messages and what will they be?
Warming and softening, however, does not mean there still won't be some hard questions about media messaging. Summit keynote speaker attorney Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society, who is a veteran of campaign initiatives, summed up the key question: do you want to feel good about yourselves or do you want to win?
"And what's difficult, and I've done this in other campaigns around race, you just want to stand up and say, 'Bigotry and discrimination is wrong, that's it game over.' Doesn't necessarily work. You may want to use those arguments to your base, but you gotta listen to your pollster and your focus group people to figure out what works with persuadables.
We did an election and (inaudible) they were trying to eliminate discrimination laws, they were going to say you cannot collect racial data, and we wanted to say that (inaudible) will harm us in dealing with discrimination cases. That didn't work.
We found out that what did work was by saying that failing to collect racial, ethnic data will result in bad health for white people. (Laughter) The polling said if you say it will hurt people of color, people didn't care. (Inaudible) That's the day I just wanted to quit and say, 'WTF, I'm outta here. You people are ridiculous.' And so I know how you feel when the arguments that are close to your heart don' t move the electorate, you just want to say forget it.
So we found - no offense about what I'm going to say next - we found the whitest white person we could find who's not an albino and had them give the message. It was Dr. C. Everett Koop, to basically say, 'If you vote for this you will die.' We won."
Matt Foreman, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and now director of the Haas, Jr. Fund, also wrote about this, directly taking on the "ick" factor:
"Lots of folks I respect have been saying if only the No on 8 Campaign had put up or hit back with forceful, to-the-heart ads featuring gay and lesbian families -- instead of those soft ones with parents or surrogates like Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- we would have won. I desperately want to agree, but can't.
The sad reality is that our movables get all wobbly -- they blanch, they stammer, they get visibly uncomfortable -- when faced with the reality of our couples, our families, our children. I've personally seen it dozens of times in focus groups, in one-on-one interviews, and in my own life and my friends' lives. Ads, for example, that make you and me cheer don't work with them at all, they backfire.
What's this about? The short answer is that the ick factor is alive and festering even among people who want to suppress it. These are people who truly want to be fair and who don't want to hurt other people. At the same time, they remain deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality and marriage goes right to the heart of their discomfort, given that sex is central to marriage."
Binder's research, conducted Nov. 6-16 among 1066 California voters (margin of error 3%), seems to support Paterson and Foreman's conclusions. He reports that "69% of all voters saw a 'Yes on 8' ad; most did not find them convincing." However, 58% of Yes voters were influenced by TV ads and the ad that had the most impact was the one about teaching same sex marriage in schools. Dianne Feinstein speaking directly to camera, the history ad narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and the Thoron ad were the best remembered "No on 8" ads.
4. How do you move voters in a state as vast as California?
Conventional campaign wisdom says that the best way to reach voters in California is through TV, radio and direct mail. To paraphrase Lorri Jean - not having sufficient money in August when broadcast ad buys are cheaper, the No campaign basically had to triage. They chose to forego outreach in the Central Valley where the money spent would probably only yield a few voters, versus spending money in more urban areas where votes might be moved in the hundreds.
Indeed, as the Binder report noted, the ignored Central Valley counties overwhelmingly supported the measure by 72%-28%, while the Bay Area was strongly opposed (39%-61%). MEUSA was upset about this result because they have chapters in the Central Valley that were told not to conduct local outreach efforts.
Instead, the No campaign relied on targeted phone banking. The Binder report, however, says that phone banking and other means of persuading voters was not as influential as personal communication. Talking to family, friends and co-workers about Prop 8 resulted in 55% voting No and 45% voting Yes.
Before the summit Binder told reporters:
"Phone calling was not effective on this issue...People respond to personal communication....The study shows that conversations with friends and neighbors are the most influential. But that's separate and apart from door-to-door visits. We found that what was most impactful was not conversation with a stranger but friend to friend."
That includes Internet communications through Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.
Interestingly, Binder said that 20% of those polled never saw a Prop 8 ad but among the 80% who did, 55% said it made no difference. Some of that may have had to do with the fact that 53% of Yes voters and 47% of No voters already held a solid personal opinion."
What did work, Geoff Kors pointed out at the summit, was Let California Ring's "Garden Wedding" ad - the one where obstacles are placed in the way of a young Latina bride on her way to get married. "What if you couldn't marry the person you love?" the soft education The ad asked. While it may have infuriated LGBT people, it was very successful with straight women, a key No base and invited the view to "spend one day in my shoes" empathy rather than have to think about discrimination.
The ad was tested in Santa Barbara where 36% supported marriage equality, 8-10 points below support in other statewide polls. Then the Garden Wedding ad hit, with accompanying phone banking and door-to-door field outreach. A subsequent poll showed a jump in support for marriage equality (16% among younger voters) and on Election Day, the country voted No on Prop 8. In fact, they voted No by 10 points - a significant shift from passing Prop 22 in 2000 by 14 points. The only difference between 2000 and 2008, Let California Ring found, was the Garden Party ad.
5. What now?
Santa Barbara was the only county in Southern California to vote to defeat Prop 8. Though SoCal counties make up 55% of the total California vote, they voted to pass Prop 8 by 54% to 46%.
One of the mistakes the No on Prop 8 campaign admits is not having a main office in Los Angeles. LA County voted 69% voted for Barack Obama but just under 50% voted No on Proposition 8. That's a significant 19% margin.
Overall, Binder reports that 8,272,473 (61.1%) of Californians voted for Obama - votes for No on Prop 8 dropped to 6,401,482 (47.7%). That's a loss of 1,770,991 votes.
Clearly, one top item on any new campaign's To Do List will be to identify voters who theoretically should be with us and figure out how to persuade them to move, if possible. For instance, Binder notes that 21% of liberals voted Yes, compared to 51% of moderates and 82% of conservatives. However, Binder also notes that voters who identify as conservative voted No on Prop 8 by 18%.
The difference in ideological vote is apparently driven by how they frame the issue: liberals are driven by belief in civil rights while conservatives are driven by a belief by the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. One might assume that the flip side is also true - that 21% of liberals also believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
Another difficult number to tackle is the 9% who voted Yes - but believe Prop 8 is unfair, unnecessary and wrong.
This makes messaging and making assumptions about the votes of traditional allies difficult. Remember - marriage is different.
But a trouble spot that might prove more movable is the partisan front. Binder notes that 30% of Democrats (who make up 45% of the electorate) voted Yes; 19% of Republicans (33% of the electorate) voted No; and Declined to State or "minor" party voters (22% of the electorate) voted 52% Yes.
There are carrot and stick ways to approach this. The carrot might be educating politicians with Freedom to Marry/Evan Wolfson's new report Pro-Marriage Legislators Win Elections in which he reviews votes from 2005 to the present and "shows that legislators who vote to end marriage discrimination for same-sex couples are consistently re-elected."
The stick might be holding the California Democratic Party's feet to the fire, especially now as they are electing new party officers.
California Democratic Party spokesman Brian Brokaw told The Advocate in its Nov. 3 edition that
"No on 8 has been a top priority for the California Democratic Party long before it was even called Prop 8....Our party has a field program of about 85 full-time staff and more than 5,000 volunteers throughout the state, so whether it's through mail or phone outreach or knocking on doors, we've made contact with millions of voters, urging a No on 8 vote. Again, as a proposition, it is our top priority to defeat Prop 8...Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to Proposition 8, so we are very hopeful that people won't just come out to support the Obama-Biden ticket. Of course we want them to do that, but we want to make sure they defeat this initiative as well."
How'd that go?
Much has been discussed about reaching out to people of color and people of faith and at the summit, Assemblymember John A. Perez added people with lower incomes. Add to that now people the conventional wisdom would have told us were with us - liberals, Democrats and women who were swayed by the Yes on 8's ads about children learning about same sex marriage in kindergarten.
There is movement now to push for an affirmative initiative in 2010. Marriage is different - and a "Yes" campaign is more difficult - the experts tell us. Do we care what the experts say?
At the summit, Chad Griffin said:
"There's one thing worse than losing Prop. 8, and that's losing it again. We can all disagree in our private venues, but we should have one goal going forward, and that's to freaking win next time."
Some argue that 2010 is a perfect time because it will capitalize on all the new activism. Others are not so sure the activists will stick around that long and point out that the California Supreme Court might use the push for a new initiative to repeal Prop 8 as a reason to decline to invalidate it so as to let "the people" decide, again. Still others note that 2010 is when the mid-term elections are held and voter turnout is usually low and Republican.
As we ask ourselves and each other and our allies these questions and others - we must also keep in mind that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. It is possible to hold differing opinions at the same time. It is possible to change your mind without being considered weak or stupid.
In fact, if there's one point we might all agree upon - it's that it is time for a new ethic of civility. Let this be the legacy of Prop 8 - that out of burning anger and pain comes a new promise to respect each other, to try to persuade and not bludgeon, and to listen and follow as well as speak and lead. I saw this work at Camp Courage. It just takes heart and personal commitment.