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

On the surface, the situation in the fourth state, Maryland, mirrored what happened in Washington: The Democratic legislature and governor passed a bill legalizing gay marriage, which opponents then sought to overturn with a ballot initiative. But behind the scenes, there were complications that made officials at Freedom to Marry leery of engaging in a campaign there. The state's main gay-rights group, Equality Maryland, had nearly been forced to close in 2011 amid accusations of financial mismanagement on the part of the executive director. Early polling put public support for same-sex marriage in only the mid-40s, versus majority support in Washington and Maine. Governor Martin O'Malley was strongly behind a gay-marriage bill in the legislature, but there seemed to be no plan for the referendum that would almost certainly follow.

Privately, some wondered if the bill wasn't primarily a vanity project for O'Malley to impress national Democrats in advance of a potential presidential run, especially since another Democratic governor with national aspirations, Andrew Cuomo of New York, had been widely hailed for getting gay marriage passed in his state in 2011. "There seemed to be a certain amount of dick-wagging between the governors of New York and Maryland," as one official put it.

Freedom to Marry was intent on being ruthlessly disciplined about the battles it chose. In an internal memo to guide conversations with donors circulated in late 2011, the group sought to convince them it would not waste their money. It would, its leaders promised, subject state ballot campaigns to a rigorous series of "benchmarks" before agreeing to get involved. "Going to the ballot in 2012 can be a winning strategy in states that meet a specific set of requirements," the memo stated. The requirements would include polling thresholds, levels of organization and fundraising, and enough lead time to lay early groundwork for a successful campaign.

Maine and Washington met the benchmarks. So did Minnesota, where the legislature had placed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. But Maryland did not. (Neither did North Carolina, where Freedom to Marry did not get involved in the referendum banning gay unions that prevailed in May 2012.) Freedom to Marry would share information with the Maryland campaign and offer support where possible, but would not send staff or money.

Politics, Sex, and Religion

Washington would be easy compared to Minnesota. Since 2009, Washington had allowed same-sex couples to form domestic partnerships, giving them many of the same state rights as married couples, and, in Seattle, it possessed one of the West Coast's most vibrant centers of gay culture. The challenge would often turn out to be convincing skeptical voters in Washington that the state needed gay marriage on top of what it already had.

Minnesota, on the other hand, was the heartland, a Midwestern state famous for its buttoned-up, polite, "Minnesota nice" culture. An extrovert in Minnesota, the joke runs, is a Lutheran who looks at someone else's shoes. Outside of the Twin Cities, gay marriage wasn't something people talked about; many older people were reluctant even to say the word "gay." In order to convince these prospective voters, gay-marriage campaigners would have to engage them in long, difficult conversations about politics, sex, and religion. And even if they won, gay marriage would still be illegal in Minnesota -- it just wouldn't be banned by the state constitution.

Canvassers used scripts developed by behavioral scientists to draw out wavering voters on the meaning of marriage and faith in their lives.

In September 2011, Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group opposing the gay-marriage ban, invited faith leaders from across the state to an informational session at a Methodist church on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, optimistically hoping perhaps 200 would show. To his amazement, a crowd of more than 700 filled every seat and spilled out of the room.

The clergy -- including four clerics who took leaves of absence from their churches to work full-time for the effort -- would prove to be crucial allies of the Minnesota campaign, helping to blunt the impression of the initiative as a fight between gays on one side and religion on the other. All six of the state's Lutheran bishops came out against the marriage ban initiative, and five of the six Lutheran synods passed resolutions condemning it. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association all opposed the ballot measure. In keeping with church doctrine, the Catholic hierarchy supported the ban, of course, but thousands of individual Catholics worked to defeat it.

In each of the four states where gay marriage was on the ballot, constructing broad coalitions and showcasing them would be crucial. The idea was to show voters that supporters of gay marriage could be churchgoers, or minorities, or even Republicans. In the Washington state campaign, for example, Republican state legislators starred in some ads that emphasized a libertarian message.

Long before the initiatives even reached the ballot, Wolfson and his allies believed preparation, message control, and early investment would be their keys to victory. In Maine, a state with fewer than 700,000 voters, campaigners needed months -- years, even -- to reach enough voters to change minds one by one. At a training session in early 2012 for field staffers in Brewer, Maine, a burg of 10,000 souls outside Bangor, a staffer read this update: "Since April of last year, we've had more than 110,000 one-on-one conversations with Mainers and changed the minds of almost 9,000 of them. Our goal is to have another 70,000 conversations this year -- including 1,400 right here in Brewer."

These would not be the two-sentence interactions of your average political campaign's door-knocking effort. Instead, they would be unlike anything heretofore tried in political outreach: deep, probing conversations designed not merely to hit a few talking points, but to change minds. Trained canvassers would engage in 30- to 60-minute heart-to-hearts, using scripts developed by behavioral scientists and tailored to various segments of the electorate, to draw out wavering voters on the meaning of marriage and faith in their lives.

In Maine, canvassers learned to begin each of these conversations with two precisely scripted, research-based questions. They first asked voters how they felt about marriage for same-sex couples. What came next was a question the campaigners called the "Marriage Three Way." With voters who said they were supportive of same-sex marriage, the canvasser drilled down, asking if they supported marriage or merely some other form of recognition, such as civil unions, for same-sex couples. It might have seemed superfluous to press voters who'd already said they were supporters, but the research had shown that some people who claimed to be in favor of same-sex marriage still preferred civil unions. "These voters," an internal training document for canvassers explained, "are susceptible to the opposition's messages."

Those who'd said they were opposed were asked a slightly different follow-up -- did they support some other form of recognition, such as civil unions, or no recognition at all for same-sex couples? Those who chose the first option, canvassers would attempt to persuade, because "people who generally oppose marriage but support civil unions are very persuadable to support marriage with the right kind of conversation." The latter were considered not persuadable, and the canvassers would thank them and move on.

In instances where the conversation continued, a more free-form discussion would ensue, one centered on shared values, love, and commitment. Canvassers were encouraged to share their own stories -- to talk about their gay friends and relatives, their own guiding values, their experiences with marriage. "There are two great questions on your script: 'Have you ever been married/Do you want to get married?' and 'Do you know any gay or lesbian people?'" the training document instructed. "You'll want to not only ask these questions, but also answer them yourselves. Remember, this is a two-way conversation, not an interview!"

The canvassers were amazed at how little it sometimes took to get people to open up in these chats. In one real, videotaped interaction, a Maine voter initially seems standoffish, telling the worker on her doorstep that her religion forbids gay marriage. But she's soon talking at length about her lesbian niece and gay coworkers, and by the end of the conversation she says she's more "open-minded" now than when she voted against same-sex marriage in 2009.

Finding the Money

Fielding an army of paid canvassers to do this kind of work in time for it to matter would be expensive. The gay-marriage advocates' intensive, bipartisan fundraising effort netted $250,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $500,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a surprise windfall of $2.5 million from the Seattle-based Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, and more than $1 million from Paul Singer, the conservative hedge-fund billionaire who was also one of Mitt Romney's top bundlers in the 2012 presidential election. Tim Gill, a Denver-based technology magnate who runs the nation's largest network of gay donors, gave and helped steer millions in donations to the marriage effort. Meanwhile, after suffering a wave of negative publicity for their involvement in funding Prop 8, Mormons appeared to steer clear of this year's gay-marriage fights, depriving the opposition of a previously rich source of funds.

Having this kind of money early made a difference. In early July, the Washington gay-marriage campaign reserved television ad time in the Seattle market all the way through Election Day, paying rates of between $470 and $520 per gross ratings point, the unit that measures the frequency and audience share of television advertising. By the time their opponents had enough money to purchase airtime in early September, prices had gone up, thanks largely to a competitive gubernatorial race; the gay-marriage opponents paid $728 per point initially, then $790 per point when they added to their ad buy in mid-October, according to the Freedom to Marry's media buyer. By the week before the election, rates were at $800 per point.

But it was anticipating and fending off the opposition's attacks that would prove most valuable to the gay-marriage activists. The veterans of the Prop 8 loss were still deeply scarred by the "Princess" ad and the underlying effectiveness of the claim that same-sex marriage would be promoted to kids in public schools. When Freedom to Marry went to donors, the of attack was often the first thing the donors brought up: Can you beat this? As of late 2011, the answer wasn't clear. "We are in the final stage of refining and testing new approaches on 'harms kids,'" an internal memo optimistically reported. Translation: We think we can do it, but we still aren't sure.

Studying both the Prop 8 fight and the 2009 Maine campaign in which the same attacks were used, Freedom to Marry had learned what didn't work. Rebutting the ads directly, pointing out their distortions and inconsistencies, and insisting that kids would not, in fact, be harmed by gay marriage were tactics that didn't help. Instead, these approaches only served to sear the opposition's message (and the fear it inspired) deeper in people's minds. Yet the "Princess"-themed ads also couldn't be ignored. Left unanswered, the attack would stick.

Around the beginning of this year, after more than two years of study and testing, researchers working with the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way finally believed they had an answer. The best way to disarm the kid-themed attacks, they concluded, was to assuage the underlying fear parents had of losing control of their children's world, without directly addressing what could supposedly happen at school. The message was disarmingly simple: Children learn their values at home, from their parents.

"We've thought long and hard about it, and we know that someday allowing everyone the freedom to marry won't change our kids' values," says "Elizabeth," who's sitting at the dining-room table with her husband, "John," in an ad aired by Minnesotans United in late October. "Because they get those values from us," John says.

The campaigners hoped the "values" message would undercut the "Princess"-themed attack without drawing further attention to it. But it had never been tried before in the heat of a campaign, and its gentleness made a lot of gay-marriage advocates very nervous. "All along, there was a segment of our supporters in the gay and lesbian community who were frankly disappointed in our TV ads," Silk said. "They were convinced we were going to lose because we were not aggressively, in a tit-for-tat political way, tackling the other side's arguments. But that was intentional on our part. They did that in California, and they lost. We were not going to be baited into that by our opponents."

Another state operative put it to me this way: "Every day I was getting calls, wanting to know why we weren't calling out the bigots."

Black vs. Gay

The campaign for gay marriage faced its own unique challenge in Maryland: race. In campaigns past, reliably Democratic African-American voters had often broken with their liberal brethren when it came to same-sex marriage, a discrepancy usually attributed to the influence of black churches. It was also part of a deliberate strategy by gay-marriage opponents. In an internal memo unearthed in March as part of a court case, the National Organization for Marriage outlined a strategy "to drive a wedge between gays and blacks." This fissure was particularly ugly in California, where, in the aftermath of the Prop 8 vote, many gay activists and white liberals blamed African-American voters for their side's defeat.

In Maryland, blacks made up 28 percent of the electorate, the fourth-largest proportion of any state and the highest outside the Deep South. But Obama's repositioning on gay marriage, which was soon followed by a full-throated endorsement from the NAACP, sparked a dramatic shift of opinion in the black community. Polls showed support for same-sex marriage among black voters moving as much as 10 points virtually overnight, from the low- to mid-30s to the mid-40s. The same-sex marriage campaigners moved quickly to capitalize on this change with an aggressive effort of African-American outreach, especially in churches.

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

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