Going After the “Movable Middle” on Gay Marriage

by Paul Hogarth on March 1, 2010

It’s tempting to look at the recent gay marriage defeats in Maine and California, and say at least we’re on the “right side of history.” The opposition is running on borrowed time, as young people increasingly support marriage equality. But the trend is not moving fast enough, and it’s clear that gay marriage supporters have been losing the “swing vote” in every election. Same-sex couples have largely won the battle for civil unions, but there’s something about “marriage” that makes moderates uneasy – and it’s time that we speak directly to their concerns. Third Way, a Washington DC based think tank, conducted a poll of 600 Maine voters right after Question One passed in November – which holds important conclusions we should build upon. As we look at repealing Prop 8 in California, going straight to those voters so we can win and finally move on to other battles is key. None of us want to wait until the old generation dies out, and nor should we have to.

As a Californian who traveled to Maine twice to help the “No on 1” effort, the Third Way report should not imply that we ran a bad campaign. Gay marriage advocates made important strides in Maine – such as not being afraid to talk about same-sex couples – that will move hearts and minds in the future. “No on 1” also did a great job mobilizing the base in an off-year election. It’s because we ran a good campaign that made losing so much more painful than California, where we all woke up after Election Day knowing that we could – and should – have done much better.

But what the report clearly shows is how we lost the “middle voters” – people who don’t explicitly support same-sex marriage, but who are persuadable on the issue. The poll asked voters to pick one of four positions: (a) 39% said gay couples should have full marriage rights, i.e., the base; (b) 22% said they should have the “same legal rights” but not call it marriage; (c) 25% said that marriage is between a man and a woman, but “there should be domestic partnerships or other legal rights” for gays; and (d) only 10% opted for no legal recognition.

The 47% who picked (b) or (c) are the “movable” swing voters, and we got creamed with those folks.

On Maine’s Question 1, we lost 71% of those who picked (b) and 87% who chose (c). Third Way did a similar poll in Washington, where on the same day voters upheld a domestic partnership law for gays and lesbians. In that poll, nearly half of the “middle” voters sided with us. We can draw two conclusions from this. Either swing voters are “not ready” for gay marriage and we must settle for civil unions and domestic partnerships, or we can figure out how to get them to vote with us. Given that at least a portion of these voters are persuadable, there is no reason not to.

“Equality” Argument is Not Adequate

Although gay marriage campaigns focus on “equality” and “discrimination” as central themes, it is far more effective at mobilizing the base – but does not resonate with most swing voters. Only 22% of “middle” voters in the Maine poll agreed that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry is “discrimination,” and 31% agreed with the “separate but equal” analogy. The argument that we should not have “one set of rules” for one group of people (including marriage laws) did better (43%), but in general it is not sufficient.

In its report, Third Way had an interesting explanation: “the middle sees marriage as an ideal as opposed to a legal construct, and they have yet to be persuaded that gay couples fit into this ideal … Using the language of equality and rights to describe marriage feels legalistic to the middle and misses the true spirit of how they envision marriage.” That’s why “equality” is enough to persuade them to support civil unions, but not gay marriage.

In order to win, we must re-frame the debate about the fundamental values of marriage.

What is Marriage – and What Do Gays Want?

Like all voters across the spectrum, the “middle” is concerned about the state of marriage in this country. More in the Maine poll said marriage has “major problems” than said it was in “good shape” or has “minor problems.” So when gay marriage advocates argue that half of all straight marriages end in divorce anyway, that does not really address their concerns. They already fear that marriage is “threatened,” and don’t want it to get worse.

How respondents describe “marriage” had a major impact as to whether they opposed Question 1. If they said it was a “lifetime commitment,” they voted with us 62-38 – but calling it a “sacred bond” made them vote three-to-one against us. A “union between two people” also helped us, but very few swing voters agreed with that description. In other words, pushing the notion that gays take marriage seriously enough to make a “lifetime commitment” goes a long way in helping these voters understand why it’s so important.

Whether people thought gays want to “change” marriage – as opposed to “join” marriage – also made a huge difference. Those who said “change” voted “Yes on 1” by a nine-to-one margin, while 74% of respondents who picked “join” went with us. The problem is, more swing voters believed that gay people are trying to “change” marriage. Explaining that we just want to be part of an institution that values lifetime commitment will help.

One of the most effective ads that the “No on 1” campaign did was with Yolande Dumont, a French Catholic grandmother – as her gay son, his partner and their ten-year-old son look on. “I believe marriage is a great institution,” she said. “It works, and it’s what I want for my children.”

Can Somebody Think of the Children? Go Talk to Your Kids!

Just like in California, the “Yes on 1” campaign in Maine focused their message almost exclusively on the impact it would have on schools – which had a big impact on swing voters. 74% of Maine voters in the “middle” said they were concerned about schools “teaching homosexuality.” The Third Way report speculated it’s not just about schools, but children in general. “They are trying to make people feel uncomfortable about the consequences for kids of allowing couples to marry and stoke fears that kids will not value marriage in the same way if gay and lesbian couples are allowed to participate.”

But there are indications the approach we took in Maine had an incremental positive effect. Rather than respond to the charge that schools will “teach” gay marriage, “No on 1” talked about how the opposition wants to make our families “feel ashamed” for being different. The Third Way poll used this language with half its respondents, and used the other half as a control group. It moved nine points in our favor, and eight points among swing voters.

The most fascinating statistic, however, was that those who actually have kids under 18 were more likely to vote our way: by 52-48, when we lost the election 47-53. This suggests to me the “Yes on 1” ads were more effective on voters who “care” about “the children” – but don’t have kids at home to understand what really goes on at school.

On that note, voters who said they actually talked to their kids about Question 1 were more likely to vote “no” – by a 55-45 margin. And while half of them believed it was “likely” that schools would teach about homosexuality if gay marriage were legal, only 40% said they were “concerned” about that. Could it be that when parents talked to their children about gay marriage, they realized they didn’t have much to worry about?

It reminds me of a canvassing experience I had outside of Bangor. I was talking with a mother who had seen the “Yes on 1” ads about schools, and said she was confused about what it all meant. I explained that what our opponents fear is schools teaching tolerance, they want our kids to feel ashamed if they don’t come from the traditional family. There are many kids with gay parents, I said, and they get teased at school for being different.

The mom turned to her daughter and asked, “is that true?”

“Yes,” said the six-year old girl.

Gay marriage activists always talk about the need for LGBT people to “come out” in their communities – that people won’t vote to take our rights away if they can actually put a human face on the issue. The Third Way poll certainly showed that Mainers were more likely to vote “no” if they knew a gay person (especially if they knew them well), and people who had talked to a gay person about the issue voted two-to-one in our favor.

But in small rural towns in Maine (and other parts of the country), most people don’t know any gays. While 70% of parents in the poll said they had talked to their kids about the issue, only 46% of all respondents said they talked to a gay person about the election.

Rather than wait for the old generation to die, it makes more sense to start having kids talk to their parents about marriage equality. And it certainly won’t take that long …

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