The Marriage Plot: Inside This Year's Epic Campaign for Gay Equality

In 2009, Wolfson began expanding Freedom to Marry. It grew from four staffers and a $1.4 million budget just three years ago to 17 staffers and $9 million today. He brought on high-powered fundraisers, pollsters, and political consultants. He called for a full-scale reassessment of past tactics and a blueprint for future action.

When it came to the ballot box, just as gay-marriage opponents were convinced they couldn't lose, some proponents had become convinced they were jinxed. Wolfson refused to believe that. Against all evidence to the contrary, he thought his side could win.

How California Was Lost

To understand how gay marriage triumphed in 2012, you have to understand how it lost in California in 2008. The success of Proposition 8, which overturned a court order granting same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, shocked and traumatized gay-rights activists.

Shortly after the 2008 election, a political consultant named Frank Schubert published an article in Campaigns & Elections magazine called "Passing Prop 8." Nobody, he wrote, had believed that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage could succeed in California, one of the most liberal states in the country, in a year when millions of liberal voters were drawn to the polls by excitement about Barack Obama. And yet, Schubert and his coauthor wrote, "conventional wisdom was stood on its head," and voters approved Prop 8 by a 700,000-vote margin.

Schubert served as the campaign manager for Prop 8. His side's first crucial decision, he said, was to avoid criticizing the same-sex couples who were already getting married. "After all," he wrote, "they were simply taking advantage of the rights the Court had granted them."

With gay-rights activists eager to brand Prop 8 proponents as bigots, Schubert felt it was important to demonstrate they were not against gay individuals or relationships per se. "Passing Proposition 8 would depend on our ability to convince voters that same-sex marriage had broader implications for Californians and was not only about the two individuals involved in a committed gay relationship," he wrote.

The central message of Schubert's Prop 8 campaign would be that there were consequences to legalizing gay marriage. "We reconfirmed in our early focus groups our own views that Californians had a tolerant opinion of gays. But there were limits to the degree of tolerance that Californians would afford the gay community. They would entertain allowing gay marriage, but not if doing so had significant implications for the rest of society."

The Prop 8 campaign's most effective ad became notorious in the gay community. In Schubert's words, it featured "a young Hispanic girl coming home from school, explaining how she had learned in class that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess!" Another ad featured a Massachusetts couple who said their son had been taught about gay marriage in the second grade.

Opponents of Prop 8 were slow to respond. When they did, it was with rebuttal ads insisting the education-based attacks were dishonest and education would not be affected by legal gay marriage. What happened next Schubert would later regard as his biggest break of the election. As he described it, "In what may prove to be the most ill-considered publicity stunt ever mounted in an initiative campaign, a public school in San Francisco took a class of first graders to City Hall to witness the wedding of their lesbian teacher. And they brought along the media."

The threat to children was no longer hypothetical. Immediately, the pro-Prop 8 campaign had an ad on statewide television "showing bewildered six-year-olds at a lesbian wedding courtesy of their local public school," as Schubert put it.

In the days before the election, Prop 8's opponents tried to change the subject to civil rights. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein narrated an ad calling on voters to oppose discrimination and protect gay marriage. In another, Samuel L. Jackson compared outlawing gay marriage to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. "We decided to not respond to this line of attack, confident that it would backfire," Schubert wrote in his article. "The basic message that supporters of traditional marriage are bigots, guilty of discrimination, had never worked in focus groups. For liberal whites like Feinstein to lecture black Californians about discrimination was not a winning message."

In the final count, Proposition 8 prevailed by a 52-48 margin, buoyed by the support of majorities of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. In Schubert's telling, it was the story of a well-executed strategy succeeding. "The Prop 8 victory proves something that readers of [this] magazine know very well," Schubert wrote: "Campaigns matter."

Starting Over

For gay-marriage proponents, the defeat was a stunning one. They'd had as much money as their opponents and the most favorable conditions imaginable, yet they'd lost decisively. Recriminations flew; some despaired; others wanted to start campaigning again right away and put the issue back on the ballot in 2010.

The "undecided" voters didn't lack feelings on the issue. They were powerfully conflicted, caught between two deep-seated sentiments.

As Amy Simon, the San Francisco-based pollster, watched the Prop 8 fight from the sidelines, it was clear to her that something had to change. Simon's research often focuses on emotionally complex social issues like late-term abortion and euthanasia. She could tell from watching the Prop 8 campaign that the opponents of gay marriage were hitting voters in the heart and the gut while supporters tried in vain to appeal to their heads. "It was so painful to watch," she said. "After the election was over, I was calling everyone I knew, saying, 'Let me in. We can do this.'"

Using funding cobbled together from a variety of foundations and advocacy groups, Simon conducted 25 focus groups and a detailed, 2,000-interview survey across California in 2009, trying to pin down the underlying emotional dynamics that were driving the voters who were "in the middle" on gay marriage. A wide swath, as much as 40 percent of the electorate, was neither absolutely in favor nor absolutely opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Simon's sessions could be wrenching. A participant in one focus group had been screened as a soft opponent of gay marriage, yet she spent half an hour sounding very supportive. She talked enthusiastically about her affection for the gay people in her daily life, including gay coworkers and a lesbian sister-in-law. "Finally, I said to her, 'When we called you, you said you were undecided or leaning against [gay marriage]. Did we make a mistake?'" Simon recalled. "She looked at me and she stopped, and she said, 'No, no, no.' Then she started crying, and she said, 'I want to be for this. But I'm afraid I'm going to burn in hell.'"

Simon found many voters were struggling as painfully as that woman with the issue of gay marriage. Their "undecided" status didn't come from a lack of feelings on the issue. They were powerfully conflicted, caught between two deep-seated sentiments: On the one hand, a desire to be fair and compassionate toward their fellow man; on the other, a loyalty to what they saw as the ironclad teachings of religion, tradition, or culture.

"These were not mean people, not bigots, not bad people," said Thalia Zepatos, who, as Freedom to Marry's director of public engagement, spent 2010 synthesizing a massive amount of marriage-related research -- collating nearly 100 different surveys, studies, exit polls and focus groups from every state that had considered the issue, including new research the group commissioned. "As long as they'd ever thought about marriage, they'd had a certain image of what it meant, and now all of a sudden we were asking them to expand that," she said. "They had questions that deserved to be answered."

In survey after survey, researchers would ask people what marriage meant to them -- not gay marriage, but the concept of marriage itself. And the answers were always the same: Marriage meant love and commitment. Even people who'd been divorced three times would say the same thing. Then the researchers would ask, "Why do you think gay people want to get married?" and the answers would change: They want rights and benefits. They're trying to make a political point. They don't understand what marriage is really about. Most commonly, respondents said they simply didn't know.

"I worked on the marriage campaign in Oregon in 2004, and we had ads with a judge in a law library, talking about rights, saying it was wrong to deny people these rights," Zepatos said. "That was considered one of the most effective campaigns [for gay marriage] in the country." Yet it failed, like all the others, and in a sudden, breathtaking epiphany, Zepatos saw why. The advocates of gay marriage had successfully convinced people that gay marriage was something different from regular marriage. It was presented to the public as a technicality -- a matter of hospital visitations and burial plots. Such technicalities were important to activists, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, when they'd had real and devastating consequences. But it was no wonder fair-minded, tolerant straight people couldn't see that gay people wanted to get married because they loved and wanted to commit to one another.

What, then, was the better way to sell gay marriage? The first step was to stop calling it gay marriage or "same-sex marriage," which put it in its own category. In the same way clever Republican pollsters once rebranded the estate tax the "death tax," gay-marriage proponents started talking, simply, about marriage. (This has produced some confusing situations, as both sides of the gay-marriage debate now call themselves "pro-marriage." In Maine, for example, the group in favor of gay marriage on this year's ballot was called Mainers United for Marriage, while the anti-gay-marriage group was Protect Marriage Maine.) To liberal audiences, the new preferred term is "marriage equality"; to conservatives, it's "freedom to marry."

The research found that the most effective message was "committed, long-term gay couples doing the same things that married couples do," in the words of a November 2011 Freedom to Marry research memo -- "mowing the lawn, helping an elderly neighbor, and talking about their hopes and dreams." Gay people needed to talk about marriage more: Many assumed their friends, colleagues, and relatives accepted them as deserving of marriage the same way they accepted them as people, when in fact, the same friends often figured that since their gay friends never talked about marriage, it must not be important to them.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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