As far as we can tell, it’s not so much that the “Yes-On-8” campaign won, but the “No-On-8” campaign lost. They lost because they confused swing voters with their inconsistent message, spent all their money on TV ads rather than street-level organizing (“ground game”) and instead of trying to win an election they went into “activist” mode and declared war on religion.
The Message Problem
President-Elect Obama’s campaign message was simple, memorable, and completely effective, because it was completely true: “John McCain voted with George W. Bush over 90% of the time. John McCain is four more years of George W. Bush.”
The No-On-8 campaign had three messages: 1) Prop 8 strips people of civil rights that were already granted to them, 2) Gays and lesbians deserve equal rights, 3) Same Sex marriage will not be taught in schools.
Message #2 is far too divisive and played into the Yes-On-8s assertion that same-sex marriage was part of a “vast gay conspiracy.” Message #3 was a defensive move on an issue that turned out to be a red herring (turns out only 23% of voters were worried about the effect same sex marriage would have on education).
This means that the winning message, not only by elimination but because it was the best message, is #1 – the civil rights argument. It should have been the only message, especially since it requires a bit more explaining than most broad, talking-point-ready campaign themes.
To effectively push the civil rights argument, the opposition campaign needed to explain to voters that there’s a difference between approving of gay marriage and stripping someone of their civil rights that have already been upheld by the state. No-On-8 made this argument well at first. The first TV ads, funded by the official No-On-8 campaign employed this strategy.
The problem was that those ads were running against ads put by a group called “Equality California”, which had the same top-level leadership as “No-On-8” but employed different strategists (which still makes no sense to us, can someone explain the thinking behind this?). Equality California also had a different message. Their ads did away with the civil rights argument in favor of a “gay and lesbian rights” argument. This confused matters.
There were now two messages out there: One that said that No-On-8 is not about same-sex marriage but about civil rights, the other said that No-On-8 is about same-sex marriage in that gays and lesbians deserved equality in marriage. This was the beginning of the end.
The wheels really fell off when the Yes-On-8ers started their “same sex marriage taught in schools” campaign; this lead to the No-On-8 campaign running counter-ads and counter-PR on the education issue. But the Equality California group was still talking about “gay and lesbian equal rights for marriage” and running those ads.
Now there were three messages: 1)” No-On-8 is not about gay marriage, it’s about protecting a minority groups’ civil rights.” 2) “No-on-8 is about gay marriage, because it’s about equality for same-sex couples.” 3) “Don’t worry, we won’t teach your kids about same-sex marriage in schools.”
This problem was compounded by Barack Obama’s gift to the Yes-On-8 campaign: His repeated statements that he believes that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” With his opposition to same-sex marriage bans excised from his statements, the message to voters, especially to African-Americans got even more muddled (as we discussed in a recent post about a Yes-On-8 Obama mailer targeted to African-Americans).
Why weren’t the No-On-8 campaign and Equality California working together to send out a unified message? Somebody needed to bring these groups together and get them in line with one consistent theme. When the Yes-On-8 started their “education argument”, both coalitions should have worked together to put an internal poll in the field and figure out whether the argument was getting any traction. Perhaps they would have found out much sooner than the Friday before the election that nobody really cared.
So where was the leadership? Or as we like to ask around here lately, where was the California Democratic Party?
The CalDem Problem
As with Prop. 5, the California Democratic Party did not have their act together on Prop. 8. But with Prop. 8 their inconsistencies were a bit more understandable. The CalDems endorsed a “No” vote, and some surrogates like Mayor Villaraigosa, Mayor Newsom (who probably hurt more than helped), and Sen. Di-Fi spoke out against Prop. 8. The problem was that all three said that Prop. 8 was about gay marriage and about civil rights.
Then there was the problem of bad timing. The CalDems had much bigger fish to fry this election than Prop. 8. The CalDems main priority was registering African-American and Latino voters and making sure they showed up to vote for President-Elect Obama.
It doesn’t take a sociologist to know that the African-American and Latino communities are pre-disposed to vote “Yes” on Prop. 8 (which, indeed, they did – 70% of African-American voters and 53% of Latinos voted “Yes”). Perhaps the CalDems, understandably, didn’t want to risk alienating African-American and Latino voters by aggressively pushing the No-On-8 message.
Unfortunately for both No-On-8 Campaign and Equality California, they were left to their own devices without much support from the state party infrastructure.
Working With Rather Than Against Religion
From the beginning, those on the fringes of the No-on-8 campaign wanted to use the issue as an attack on religions that preached a “Yes-On-8” message. We can’t tell you how many times we personally saw and how many other tales we heard about people standing outside of churches with No-On-8 signs. If you live in one of the state’s bigger cities, you probably saw this yourself.
Who at the No-On-8 campaign let people get away with this? This is an election, not a political protest. This sort of nonsense makes “soft yes” voters dig their heels in harder and completely turned off swing voters. Then there was the problem with the No-On-8s campaigns war against the Mormons in the final weeks of the campaign.
These are only two examples of No-On-8s perceived “war against religion” in the final weeks of the campaign. This whole strategy was mind-blowing to us. Why wasn’t the first strategy of the opposition campaign to work with religious leaders at the community, local and national level who were already No-On-8. This should have been a centerpiece of the campaign rather than the afterthought that it felt like.
Why not mobilize sympathetic church members to work within their own communities to work the civil rights issue and help get out the vote? Harassing parishioners leaving Mass or smearing the entire LDS church makes it impossible for No-On-8 church members to work with the campaign, and in fact it may be enough to change some “No” votes to “Yes.”
The”Soft Yes” Problem and Lack of Ground Troops
The failure of the No-On-8 campaign to work with religious groups speaks to a larger problem, their complete lack of “ground game” (geez, we’re sick of that term! Hopefully that’s the last time we’ll use it for awhile!!). The No-On-8 campaign failed to identify pockets of “Soft Yes” voters. San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, as well as many counties in the San Joaquin Valley and Central California all overwhelmingly both for Obama and for Prop. 8. If there was a real ground effort in place and truly organized at the community level, Obama voters who were “Soft Yes” on 8 could have been identified and reached.
Anyway, it’s all over now. The lawsuits have already started flying, which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point. Otherwise, the No-On-8ers can try to get it right in a couple of years.