West Hollywood, California (Thursday, November 20, 2008) – Last night I attended a meeting in to hear some of the leaders of the losing No on Prop 8 campaign discuss why they thought we lost.
I found myself strongly disagreeing with their assessment. I also found myself in excellent company among the many villagers feeling pushed outside the village gates.
So what happened? On a day of a monumental tidal shift when voters bust down the front door of the White House for an African American and Californians voted to prevent the closing of another door to abortion rights, in a stunning reversal Californians voted to slam the door on the civil rights of gay couples and strip us of our right to marry.
The single biggest reason for the Proposition 8 loss was an ineffective and inept campaign strategy by the leadership of the No on 8 campaign.
Despite raising record shattering amounts of money and volunteers who worked their hearts out, the overarching state campaign strategy was a huge flop.
How to Lose a Political Campaign
The statewide No on 8 campaign violated numerous standard rules of political campaigns and overlooked or ignored basic campaign strategy and in so doing lost a double digit lead to predictable scare tactics.
Independent polls from both the California Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California showed Prop 8 losing by an increasing margin following the tidal wave of joyous wedding coverage growing to a double digit lead in September before intensive television advertising began.(1)
Internal polls conducted by Equality California (ECQA) are said to have provided a different picture of voter opinion but ECQA has thus far declined to disclose them.
All three major elements of a successful campaign – media, field operation and Get Out The Vote program — were flawed or worse, completely non-existent.
The No on 8 campaign began by allowing the Yes on 8 proponents to define the debate and it was never able to recover.
This violated the first rule of political campaigns which is to never let your opponent define you first.
After a near fatal slow start, every emotional attack ad from Yes on 8 received a tepid intellectual response from No on 8.
This violated another rule of political campaigns which is to quickly respond in equal kind to an attack so it is not allowed to penetrate the public mind.
Instead of running a diverse muti-message campaign of persuasion, the media message was emotionless, monotone and uncompelling.
In short, the media messages failed to move or even educate voters about the issue and instead appealed to a single abstract principle – equality – that was not sufficiently persuasive or connected to the content of the proposition.
Worse, there appeared to be no effective Black or Latino strategy.
An effective target strategy would have been to send Democratic voters mailers with a picture of Barack Obama and other prominent diverse leaders who oppose Prop 8 and, alternately, to send Republican voters mailers with pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other prominent religious and conservative leaders who oppose Prop 8. This is textbook targeting.
TV AD #1: A perky but awkward teenager is sitting in a school yard. He or she is Black or Latino. He could be the actor who plays the gay son on Ugly Betty. He speaks directly into the camera while shuffling his feet: “You know, it’s hard growing up feeling different. Rejection hurts. Self esteem and acceptance are vital to the success of kids like me.
“Did you know that as many as 1 in 3 gay and lesbian teens attempt suicide? Prop 8 would prevent people like me from marrying. When I grow up, I hope to get married someday. “Please don’t take that hope away from me. Just growing up is hard enough.” (Gentle woman’s voice: “Vote no on 8, Please don’t discriminate’)
He could be the actor who plays the gay son on Ugly Betty. He speaks directly into the camera while shuffling his feet: “You know, it’s hard growing up feeling different. Rejection hurts. Self esteem and acceptance are vital to the success of kids like me.
“Did you know that as many as 1 in 3 gay and lesbian teens attempt suicide? Prop 8 would prevent people like me from marrying. When I grow up, I hope to get married someday.
“Please don’t take that hope away from me. Just growing up is hard enough.” (Gentle woman’s voice: “Vote no on 8, Please don’t discriminate’)
The touching images about post-Supreme Court weddings that so effectively humanized the issue were squandered.
The magnificent media saturation about our personal stories that was broadcast throughout every corner of the state caused huge gains in public opinion and, by extension, voter preferences.
Did our advertising strategy utilize these moving stories? Inexplicably, they did not.
The sanitized media messages smacked of a campaign by focus group. Such an outdated orthodox approach should have been overridden by common sense and political savvy.
How it is our community’s considerable collective campaign knowledge could have lead the No on 8 campaign so astray?
Ads never even mentioned the subject matter of the proposition — gay marriage or marriage equality — ceding it to the Yes on 8 proponents to define for the electorate.
The No on 8 ads never featured simple first hand heartfelt stories of gay and lesbian families talking about what it means to them and their children to have the legal benefits of marriage and conversely, what it would mean to have that right ripped away.
They never featured our children and what the legal protection of marriage means to them. And significantly they did not reflect the diversity of our electorate.
TV AD #2: A gay couple is sitting with their young children. They speak directly into the camera:
“The legal protections of marriage are important to us because, like other parents, we’re concerned about what might happen to them should something happen to one of us. Prop 8 would take away the right to marry of people like us. “Please don’t take that away from us or from them.” (Gentle voice: ‘Vote no on 8. Please don’t discriminate’).
“The legal protections of marriage are important to us because, like other parents, we’re concerned about what might happen to them should something happen to one of us. Prop 8 would take away the right to marry of people like us.
“Please don’t take that away from us or from them.” (Gentle voice: ‘Vote no on 8. Please don’t discriminate’).
When it became clear things were going awry, campaign managers were changed mid-stream.
There was a noticeable shift in messaging during which media messages became more powerful but they continued to dance around the issue.
By this point, it was too little too late.
1. ‘Polling on Prop. 8 – California’s Same Sex Marriage Ban’, by Mark DiCamillo, Director of the California Field Poll, Pollster.com, November 7,1008 . Early September Field Poll showed the opposition leading by 14 or 17%. depending on wording. Mid-September polling by Public Policy Institute of California showed a lead of 14%. Prop 8 proponent ads began airing mid-to-late September.
2. The term, ‘Ick Factor’, was coined by Eric Rofes to describe a visceral recoil between gay men and lesbians.
Check WeHo News on Monday for Part Two of How We Blew The No on 8 Campaign, The ‘Ick Factor’ and A Call to Account: A Losing Strategy That Didn’t Have to Be.
Terry Leftgoff is the founder of the Gay and Lesbian Business Association of Santa Barbara (GLBA) and the GLBA Scholarship Fund, an endowed foundation that provides grants to gay and lesbian students, a former political and environmental consultant from Santa Barbara who ran both candidate and issue campaigns and is currently an Environmental, Government & Public Relations consultant living in West Hollywood.
Read the second part of How We Blew The No on 8 Campaign (Part 2) – Monday, November 24, 2008
by clicking the link.