Repealing Prop 8: Should We Do it in 2010 – or 2012?

by Paul Hogarth on July 28, 2009

It’s the question gay marriage advocates have debated for months. Because the Supreme Court said only the voters can repeal Proposition 8, the question now is – do we go to the ballot next year, or do we wait until 2012? A growing chorus of activists and political consultants are urging caution, saying California is “not ready” to restore marriage equality – and the movement is not strong enough (particularly in communities of color) to ensure a victory. But the relative advantages of waiting two years don’t appear substantial to me, and I do not find most of the reasons cited to be very persuasive. However, there are other reasons – such as the timing and circumstances – that warrant a serious discussion. Marriage equality groups are determined to fight hard regardless of when “the movement” decides on a 2010 or 2012 date, but I’m hazy on who exactly will make that decision. And sometimes, you can never really control when the time will come …

In the past several months, groups like Equality California and the Courage Campaign have polled their members about whether to go back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012. It’s a really odd question to ask liberal activists over e-mail, and to nobody’s surprise the overwhelming response was to go back to the ballot next year. Prop 8’s passage has ignited a new generation of activists, who have energized the community like never before.

At the same time, a group of so-called “cooler heads” – which includes a combination of political consultants and civil rights groups –say that 2010 is too early. Prop 8 passed by 600,000 votes, and public opinion has not changed much since then. The marriage equality movement has a lot of work it needs to do in communities of color, and there has not been time to change “hearts and minds.”

Of course, the most effective argument for waiting until 2012 is that a second loss could be “devastating” – and set back the movement years. I’m not convinced it would be as bad as people are saying, but it’s an important question to ask – based upon the resources our community would be asked to throw into that effort. Whether to go in 2010 or wait until 2012 is a tough question to answer, so I’ve attempted to lay out the arguments.

Demographics and Turnout

Practically every pollster and political consultant will advise that repealing Prop 8 should wait until 2012 – because public opinion is gradually ebbing in our favor. Young people support gay marriage by wide margins, while opposition voters are slowly dying out. In other words, waiting an extra two years is the “prudent” thing to do if you want to win.

But while this hasn’t been reflected in polls, California will arguably be ready in 2010. I have more confidence in Nate Silver’s predictions than anyone else in the business of “political prognostication” – because his research marries (no pun intended) polling data with demographic trends. And on this particular question, melding the two is critical.

In April, Nate Silver did a comprehensive analysis of all 50 states – to identify the “tipping point” for when a majority of the electorate in each state will support marriage equality. A few states like Vermont and Massachusetts are already there, whereas it will take until 2024 for Mississippi to reject an anti-gay marriage amendment. In the case of California, Silver predicts the “tipping point” to be 2010 – which suggests we would win.

However, turnout is always lower in non-presidential years like 2010 – and the electorate will be older. Debunking the myth that Obama “brought out Prop 8 voters” in 2008, Nate Silver also showed that first-time voters (many of whom were inspired to turn out because of Obama) opposed Prop 8 by a 62-38 margin. In other words, Prop 8 would have passed by a wider margin – had it not been a presidential year, and had Obama not been the nominee.

Running a Different Campaign

But there are limits to this analysis. Political consultants who caution against 2010 seem to treat the Prop 8 result as a bellwether for future elections. Prop 8 passed by a 52-48 margin, so their analysis of demographic trends and voter turnout assume a similar pattern. What it does not consider is how the result would have been if we had run a different campaign.

Just like Michael Dukakis, the “No on 8” effort blew a seventeen-point lead. It was a horribly run campaign whose message was reactive, failed to preempt the opposition’s tactics, ignored parts of the state where we could have held our losses, and misused volunteers. Probably the best argument to go forward in 2010 is that Prop 8 was eminently beatable in 2008.

And marriage equality activists have learned a lot from their defeat. First, this cannot be a coastal campaign that ignores traditionally conservative parts of the state – and the Fresno mass rally was a powerful statement of a new approach. Second, groups like the Courage Campaign have run grassroots training sessions all over the state – which will help produce a powerful field effort.

Paul Wellstone always said that an organized statewide field campaign can add a few percentage points to your vote total on Election Day. In a non-presidential election year, when turnout is lower and whoever gets their “base” out to vote will prevail, a targeted field effort is that much more critical. Based on these developments, I have far more confidence in our ability to win in 2010 – which leads me to question why we must wait.

Voting “Yes” vs. Voting “No”

But a campaign to repeal Prop 8 cannot simply be compared to a campaign to defeat it.

Anyone who has worked on initiative campaigns can tell you it is far easier to convince people to vote “no” on a proposition – than it is to vote “yes.” A “yes” campaign means educating voters about the issue, and making them feel good about something they might not totally understand. A “no” campaign just involves reinforcing their skepticism about our crazy initiative process. Last time, we had to run a “no” campaign to defeat Prop 8. This time, the challenge will be to ask voters to say “yes” to a proposition repealing it.

It is conventional wisdom that a ballot measure whose “yes” side is polling beneath 50% before the campaign starts in earnest is toast. Voters may initially like the idea when a pollster asks them a question, but they change their mind when the opposition campaigns against it. All you need to do to defeat a proposition is to spend a lot of money telling voters the measure is “confusing,” has “unintended consequences” or has a “hidden agenda.”

The most recent statewide poll in California shows that 47% support gay marriage, while 48% are opposed. If we assume this will be a traditional initiative campaign, going ahead in 2010 sounds like a foolish idea – because we’re below 50% a year before the election.

But this may not be a “traditional” initiative campaign. What we saw last year is that “Yes on 8” ran more like a traditional “no” campaign, while our side acted more like a “yes” campaign. It was “Yes on 8” that said marriage equality would have “unintended consequences” on public schools and religious freedom, while the “No on 8” campaign just tried to educate voters about the issue. The old rules may not apply in this situation.

What Will Be the Political Context?

Probably the best argument I’ve heard about waiting for 2012 is that voters will be in a sour mood in 2010. The economy is in recession, and our state budget is in perpetual crisis. Will people be willing to campaign hard for a measure to grant marriage rights, when we have so many other problems going on now? A constitutional amendment to repeal the two-thirds requirement to pass a state budget appears far more urgent at this moment.

A counter-argument is that 2012 will be worse – because activists will be busy trying to re-elect Barack Obama. But we had the same “problem” in 2008, and it’s simply untrue that Prop 8 passed because of the presidential election. There were plenty of volunteers who did not go to swing states, and were more than willing to help the campaign. If we hadn’t run such an awful field effort, that grassroots energy would have been put to use.

No, the bigger concern is if Obama would even be on our side in 2012 when he’s up for re-election – and we need his endorsement to repeal Prop 8. It was one thing for Obama to oppose Prop 8 last year – when he could just say it was “divisive and discriminatory.” Would he come out in favor of a proposition that restores marriage equality, given that his personal opinion is that marriage is between “a man and a woman”? That may be tricky.

Who Gets to Decide Anyway?

Marriage equality advocates I have spoken to are very torn about whether to go to the ballot in 2010 or 2012, and I have mixed feelings myself. Everyone is willing to work hard once the decision is made, but I’m unsure about who will be making that decision.

Yesterday, the Courage Campaign issued its “Four Principles for a United Movement” – as a foundation of a campaign to restore marriage equality in California. These are:

(1) Our campaign to win must begin now, regardless of when the movement decides to place a marriage equality initiative on the ballot.

(2) To unite the strength of activists across California, the campaign must be independent, accountable, and not dominated by any one organization.

(3) To gain the trust and full commitment of supporters, the campaign needs a representative and functional governance structure.

(4) Victory on election day requires a strong, experienced campaign manager who understands California politics and has won battles like this before. Our opposition is well organized, and we need exceptional leadership on our side to prevail.

I can’t disagree with any of these four principles – but I still don’t understand who “the movement” is, and how any “decision” can be binding on everyone in the movement.

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