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

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Maryland didn't wind up suffering much from Freedom to Marry's decision not to fully support its campaign. In a bit of intra-movement rivalry, the Human Rights Campaign, the well-established Washington, D.C.-based gay-rights clearinghouse, had adopted the state financially and organizationally when Freedom to Marry declined to commit. (The two groups publicly insisted they got along fine and simply had different objectives.) Toward the end of the campaign, the airwaves were so clogged with ads for and against a casino referendum that both sides of the gay-marriage fight were priced out of the advertising market. Maryland organizers also had the advantage of working in the most Democratic of the four states: Obama would wind up with 62 percent of the vote, compared to 56 percent in Maine and Washington and 53 percent in Minnesota. What Republicans there were in Maryland were often different than in other states -- government workers or D.C. political professionals with libertarian views. A former chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich worked on the campaign for marriage, as did a senior fellow for the Cato Institute.

By late October, a Washington Post poll was showing gay marriage polling at 52 percent in Maryland. If the referendum succeeded, Maryland would become the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to legalize gay marriage, and the old racial animosities might be put to rest. But it wasn't clear how lasting or real the "Obama effect" on black voters would prove to be. One national gay advocate not involved with Freedom to Marry or the Maryland campaign told me a few weeks before the election that her biggest fear was that the other three states would vote in favor of marriage but Maryland would not. Such a result would reinforce the damaging, hurtful storyline about blacks vs. gays -- and with it, the idea that the beneficiaries of the last generation's civil-rights battle were standing in the way of this one's.

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

As the campaigns entered their final stretch in late October, the marriage campaigners waited for new opposition tactics they'd have to scramble to respond to -- and waited, and waited. But almost everything went almost exactly according to the same playbook that Schubert, who had been retained by the National Organization for Marriage to manage all four state ballot campaigns, had laid out back in 2009. "We kept waiting for them to zag, and they just kept zigging," Silk said.

The traditional-marriage campaigners aired nearly identical ads in all four states, in a couple of cases even labeling the state incorrectly when they posted the ad online. The school-based attacks arrived on schedule in late October. The gay marriage proponents were so well prepared that when the first one aired in Washington, they issued a rebuttal press release 12 minutes later, had a response ad featuring the "values" message online in half an hour, and were airing the response ad on television within 24 hours. Crucially, all the gay-marriage campaigns but Maryland's had sufficient funds to air response ads while simultaneously keeping their commitment-themed ads on as well, a "two-track strategy" aimed at never letting voters forget the positive message about love.

What changes the gay-marriage campaigners did detect in their opponents' strategy were minor. Rather than aim primarily at middle-class parents, Schubert's anti-gay-marriage commercials seemed to be placing more emphasis on blue-collar white men, tapping into their economic anxieties by playing up (largely bogus) stories about gay marriage's supposed economic consequences. In several states, for instance, his ads featured an innkeeper in Vermont who was sued after refusing to host a lesbian wedding. (Gay-marriage advocates said the lawsuit stemmed from the state's anti-discrimination law and had nothing to do with the legal status of marriage.) The same-sex marriage proponents responded by including more blue-collar messengers in their ads.

The opposition also seemed to be trying very hard to provoke confrontation. Anti-gay-marriage demonstrators with large signs went to the gayest neighborhoods in Seattle, apparently trying to draw some kind of response. On October 14, a gay-marriage supporter tore a sign off a woman's car, yelled at her, and shoved a bystander. The man was arrested; the gay-marriage campaign strongly condemned the attack; the opponents sought to play it up as proof they were being persecuted. As a tactic, the move seemed to the gay-marriage advocates to signal desperation and a lack of financial resources.

Two weeks before Election Day, Wolfson and Solomon, Freedom to Marry's campaign director, sent a confidential memo to top donors. "A week ago, we hosted a series of National Engagement Parties around the country, bringing in an additional $500K for the ballot fights," it reported. Ken Mehlman -- George W. Bush's former campaign manager and a major fundraiser and strategist for gay marriage since coming out in The Atlantic in 2010 -- had hosted the biggest one in New York, the memo reported, raising $300,000. Freedom to Marry, the memo reported, was spending nearly $7 million on the ballot fights, far outpacing the $3 million goal the organization had set at the beginning of the year, and more than the opponents appeared to have raised in all four states combined.

At this late stage, the four campaigns were sharing an opposition-research firm and holding biweekly conference calls to strategize around common problems. In Maine, field staffers reported in-depth conversations with 165,000 individual voters. In Minnesota, they'd been airing TV ads nonstop since August. In Washington, the biggest challenge was convincing voters that domestic partnership wasn't sufficient. In Maryland, radio ads were going up featuring former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and "invoking the president's explanation of how he opened his heart to the freedom to marry," the memo reported.

For all the confidence expressed in the memo, nervousness reigned behind the scenes. Solomon, a canny operative who hates to lose, is also a chronic worrier; the years he spent defending gay marriage politically in Massachusetts, a long fight that pitted him against an ambitious governor named Mitt Romney, were so stressful they left him with permanent nerve damage.

The day before the election, I emailed Solomon to ask how he was feeling. He wrote back:

Nervous....we've done incredible work in these campaigns (I'm in Portland, Maine right now), but it's hard to know what from our opponents sticks. Referenda are so different from court rooms or even legislatures, where the facts are presented and debated, dispassionately, under oath. In ballot campaigns, there is no restriction on misinformation and outright lies from our opposition. We've been extraordinarily well-prepared, we've raised the $$ and far outraised our opponents, we've gotten out our affirmative stories, even as we respond to our opponents, and we have in place the most powerful and targeted GOTV efforts our movement has ever known. But it's still nerve-wracking to have our fundamental rights and freedoms decided by voters at the ballot box.

I later learned another reason for Solomon's late-stage agitation: In the final days, some of the states' tracking polls had suddenly and unexpectedly swooned. Support in Maine dipped from the high 50s to 53 percent; Washington went from consistently polling in the low 50s to hovering, gut-wrenchingly, between 49 and 51 percent. And those were supposed to be the two strongest states. Maryland and Minnesota were holding steady, but only around 51-52 percent -- dangerous territory for an issue that had repeatedly gotten clobbered in the past after going into Election Day with wide polling leads.

Zepatos, the messaging guru, spent the days leading up to the election touring Minnesota in an RV. In the tiny town of Mountain Iron, an hour north of Duluth, she met a group of white-haired ladies whose quilting club convened at the Lutheran church on Sunday afternoons. The women told Zepatos they spent every Sunday discussing how to get their friends and neighbors to come around and vote "no" on the amendment to ban gay marriage. There's something happening here, she thought. But it occurred to her that she and her colleagues were taking a huge gamble on a strategy that had never been tried before and still might fail spectacularly.

"You sort of start cutting a trail that you think is leading in the right direction," she told me. "You've got a compass point ahead of you, you think you're going east or whatever, and you keep on it based on your reading of your compass. But until you reach that destination, it's always a question. Did I miss something? Is this really the right way?"

The Moment of Truth

When you work on a political campaign, there is never enough to do on Election Day. The get-out-the-vote operation is churning, reports are coming in from polling places, yet you are basically helpless as you wait for the outcome.

In Portland, Maine, Solomon edited two Freedom to Marry press releases for each state -- one for a loss, one for a win. As the returns began to come in, he huddled in the campaign's war room upstairs at the Portland Holiday Inn with the state's campaign manager, Matt McTighe, an old friend he'd worked with at MassEquality in Boston. The men wore orange laminated all-access passes around their necks as they parsed the incoming numbers, comparing each town's results to how it had performed in 2009.

In nearly every case, the numbers were coming in better than 2009. Even in the parts of the state where they expected to do worst, their margins were better than before, often by 6 to 8 points. They were even winning three counties -- Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo -- they'd previously lost. Around 11 p.m., McTighe was doing a radio interview and couldn't hold back any longer. "At this point, it's a question of when, not if, we call the race," he told the host, the gay writer and activist Michelangelo Signorile.

News organizations still hadn't called it, but McTighe was sure. He walked down to the hotel ballroom, where 2,000 activists and field organizers had gathered, and up to the podium. The atmosphere was electric: The crowd could tell he wasn't coming in to tell them they'd lost.

"It has been a long time coming," McTighe said, his voice shaking. "Because of the work of everyone in this room, and so many staff and volunteers and supporters all over the country, we have finally won the freedom to marry."

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

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