"There is that next swath of people who are still wrestling with conflicts," Wolfson says. "They want to be fair. They're not the hard-core antigay, but they also grapple with, "˜Why marriage?' "
The need for a different approach to selling gay marriage to moderates became apparent after the 2008 passage in California of Proposition 8, which decreed that only marriage between a man and a woman was valid in the state. Third Way, the center-left think tank, surveyed California residents the day after the vote and turned up surprisingly soft support for gay marriage in areas where heavier backing had been expected, such as San Francisco. The Proposition 8 vote was "a galvanizing force in getting the gay and lesbian movement to really think about strategy," says Craig Rimmerman, a Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor who studies LGBT politics.
The backlash from the vote in California prompted some soul-searching among groups such as Freedom to Marry and Third Way. "There was sort of a day of reckoning. The moderate policymakers we work with needed the help. They said, "˜We need to know how to talk about this,' " recalls Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way's director of social policy and politics.
Since Proposition 8, Third Way has conducted nine rounds of research, including state and national polling, psychological interviews with moderate voters, and online simulated campaigns. Among those who said that gay couples were seeking to marry for rights and benefits, more than 60 percent opposed allowing them to do so. But among those who said that gay couples wanted to marry for love and commitment, about the same percentage supported extending the institution to them.
"There was sort of this "˜Ah-ha!' moment," says Wolfson, when gay-marriage advocates realized that moderate voters would be more receptive to the idea of commitment than to rights and benefits. "They didn't connect that to marriage, because those were not the first reasons they got married either," he says. "We realized that we needed to do a better job of talking with our neighbors about why we wanted to get married."
In recent months, both former Secretary of State Colin Powell and prominent libertarian scholar Charles Murray have cited observations of their own gay friends' relationships as evidence that the contours of traditional marriage should be happily inhabited by same-sex couples.
Wolfson says that the rights-and-benefits argument remains salient. But the evolution of the messaging toward the "commitment" emphasis represents a sort of generational turnover, a departure from an era when advocates couched the right to marry in the tradition of the African-American civil-rights movement, a linkage that even many sympathetic black politicians deplored as nearly sacrilegious.
"In many cases, the advocates were actually making this disconnect worse," Erickson Hatalsky says. "They were inflaming the idea that gay couples just wanted to get married for a bunch of rights."