Thursday, November 20, 2008

How We Blew It: California's Prop 8 Defeat

How We Blew It
California's Prop 8 Defeat

A Bungled Campaign, A Call for Change, The 'Ick' Factor, and
Historical Inevitability

By Terry Leftgoff

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.

Ineffective Media

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

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 Schwarzennegger and other prominent
religious and conservative leaders who oppose Prop 8. This is textbook

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')
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 over-riden 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

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
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.

The 'Ick Factor'

Let's address the 'Ick Factor'.(2) In this situation, it applies to
the way our proponents sexualize and demonize the gay community then
attempt to exploit the discomfort they created. One particularly
effective theme of the demonizing attack ads by the Yes on 8 proponents
was the shameless use of lies about children. But instead of humanizing
ourselves and our children, No on 8 responded by hiding us in the
closet, in effect a self inflicted wound, and failing to show how such
attacks are hurtful to the well-being of our children.

History has shown us that when the humanity of the gay community is
showcased, public opinion is highly responsive. This has been true with
AIDS, prior attacks on gay teachers, and with the coverage of gay
weddings. Instead, the campaign message rendered gay couples and parents
invisible with antiseptic ads that in effect dehumanized us which
allowed these demonizing attack ads by Yes on 8 proponents to flourish
in the public mind. These emotional tactics by Yes on 8 proponents were
cliche, shopworn and completely predictable. The gay community was
'disappeared', hidden in the closet like a shameful crazy uncle, within
ineffective third party media messaging. The singular media message,
approach and roll out was, at best, painfully slow and monotone, and, at
worst, it reflected internalized homophobia.

There were no ads that pealed back the curtain on who the stealth
sponsors of Prop 8 were and the religiously based campaign they were
waging. The Morman Church and its members accounted for nearly $ M or
close to half of all Yes on 8 proponent contributions. They sponsored
and ran an effective ground operation that trained members to never let
on they were Morman. The Morman Church has, in a well guarded secret,
been the primary sponsor of virtually every anti-gay initiative that has
appeared on a state ballot in the United States. How salient would an ad
have been that asked voters whether the Morman Church of Utah, infamous
for its polygamists and forcing underage young girls into exploitive
marriages, should lecture Californians about marriage? We'll never know
since no such ad was produced.

TV AD #3: A well known black civil rights figure or minister
speaks directly into the camera: "The Mormon Church of Utah is behind
Prop 8 on the ballot. They want to ban gay marriage. Did you know that
for over a century, the Mormon Church banned blacks from becoming
members.(3) Now they want to tell Californians what our marriages
should look like? (Gentle voice: 'Vote no on 8. Please don't

I wonder how such an ad might have resonated with African American
voters, 70% of which ended up siding with the Morman Church on Prop 8.
(4) Internal polls conducted by Equality California (ECQA) are said to
show 57% support from Black voter preferences but ECQA has thus far
declined to release them.

Perhaps one of the most instructive and disturbing contradictions of
the election is to hear Black religious leaders justify their position
by using the same language and rationale against gay marriage that was
historically used against them. Several interviews with leading black
leaders supporting Prop 8 repeated the mantra that to them it was not a
civil rights issue but rather a moral or religious issue.

This is the identical language used by the racists of their day to
defend segregation, to ban interracial marriage and to justify
discrimination in housing. This latter issue is particularly salient
because, like marriage equality, it was placed before voters and, in a
similar expression of the 'people's will', was overwhelmingly approved
prior to being striken by the California Supreme Court. (5) Clearly we
failed to sufficiently make our case with Black voters. And we need to
understand why.

TV AD #4: A black minister speaks directly into the camera; "There
used to be a legal ban on blacks and Jews moving into white
neighborhoods. They used to tell us it wasn't a civil rights issue, it
was a moral issue. Yeah, right. Now they've put Prop 8 on the ballot
that would ban gay marriage. They are saying it isn't a civil rights
issue, it's just a moral issue. Uh huh. Photo montage of Barack Obama
and other Black leaders who are against Prop 8.
(Gentle female voice: 'Vote no on 8. Please don't discriminate')

No Grassroots Organization, A Weak Field Operation, Failed GOTV

Rather than organizing local organizing committees across the state
for a strong locally grown grass roots operation, the campaign appeared
insular and apparently did not include or listen to those with
experience in the winning grassroots activism that has beaten back
repeated anti-gay measures during the last 3 decades. Further, they
failed to run a basic ground operation and relied upon a website that
was so bad it frequently acted as a repellent.

The Yes on 8 proponents used a traditional field operation by
personally talking to potential voters at the precinct level. In this,
there is no substitute for face-to-face campaigning. The personal
approach has proven to be the most effective and it is backed by years
of political science and empirical experience. Standard campaign
practice holds that it takes 3 personal contacts to firm up a leaning
voter. In contrast, No on 8 apparently never conducted an actual ground
operation, relying instead on a patchwork of phonebanks with limited
reach and saturation, and surrendered outlying areas likely racking up
larger losses.

Further, looking beyond ineffective media and a weak ground operation,
there was an incompetent Get Out The Vote (GOTV) strategy which likely
resulted in lower turnout of supporters in key voter rich counties. I
personally received a note from the No on 8 campaign thanking me for my
offer to volunteer for election day GOTV activities but declining
because they had no need. No need for volunteers on election day?! They
did offer, however, that I could come in to help clean their offices the
day after the election. How nice. I imagine cleaning their office the
day after the election might produce scads of new votes. Not.

As it turns out, I was not alone. Numerous volunteers, whose stories
have lit up Internet blogs, were turned away by No on 8 on election day
because there was no real GOTV strategy.

So what was their GOTV program? The weekend before the election,
volunteers were 'trained' to stand outside polling places on election
day. And if you missed the 'training' there was no use for you.

What's wrong with that approach? This is often counterproductive
because: a. it doesn't increase turnout (people are already entering the
polls); b. by this time voters generally have already made up their
minds; c. even though the law specifies a buffer around polling places
where there can be no electioneering, it can be intimidating to voters
and can turn people against; and, d. you want all available hands on
deck on election day without any artificial barriers.

A textbook GOTV program is one that focuses on actually getting your
supporters to vote: transport people to polling places, check the
polling place throughout the day to see who of your supporters hasn't
voted yet, then make efforts to get them to the polls.

What about all those voters who voted by mail? Typically, it is
crucial to have a strategy to contact these early voters at the time
mail ballots are being received, weeks before the election and outside
the reach of last minute media messages. This is where early targeted
mailers make a crucial impact. But that was not part of the strategy

How could there be no mail voter strategy? Good question. It was well
known and anticipated that the use of mail ballots would be
unprecedented; in fact, more voters cast their votes by mail in this
election than at any time in state history.

The Linchpin - Los Angeles County

So where did it really go wrong? Los Angeles County. It is the single
most important County in California accounting for 25% of all votes cast
in the state, and it is where the campaign appears to have collapsed.

It seems Prop 8 was primarily lost in LA County, which due to a 2-to-1
ratio of Democrats to Republicans typically delivers enough votes to
dilute and cushion conservative votes elsewhere (primarily in Orange and
San Diego Counties, among others).

LA is essential to the electoral success of a traditionally liberal
cause. A simple party line vote in LA, given the projected turnout,
would have polled between 5-600,000 more votes against Prop 8 than it
did. Had it done so, Prop 8 would have lost. In the case of Prop 8, not
only did LA not deliver, it leaned in the wrong direction and
contributed to a state deficit of over 500,000 votes.

Could a more effective GOTV strategy have increased turnout among
supporters increasing the winning margin in supportive areas and
decreasing the margin of loss in hostile areas? That is the intended
purpose. Too often elections are won by who stays home. One signal is
that Prop 4 was successfully defeated by the identical vote margin that
passed Prop 8. So there was a clear discordance among some voter groups.
And it appears the Prop 8 campaign had both a tail wind and a head wind.

As for turnout, despite repeated media reports about record turnout in
the low 80's % the reality was slightly lower in California. As of this
writing, LA County, with about 4.1 M registered voters, reports about 3
Million votes cast for a turnout of close to 75% which is strong and
consistent with turnout of 71% statewide which will likely be revised
upward due to reporting delays. So there appears to have been some room
to increase turnout. Numbers are preliminary as votes are still being
tallied and it is likely they will continue to be revised upward into
early December.

Turnout in Orange County, with just over 1.6 M registered voters, is
reported to be lower at about 70% or 1.12 Million ballots cast as of
this writing. It is a bastion of conservative votes where John McCain
polled over 36,000 votes or a margin of 3% more than Barack Obama. Prop
8 won by 172,000 votes or by 58-42. Prop 4 won by 93,000 votes or by

By comparison, turnout in San Francisco, with 477,651 registered
voters, is reported to be 375,000 or 78.5% with less than 1% or close to
4500 ballots still to be counted. Both Prop 8 and 4 lost by identical
margins (75-25). Still 25% of voters in SF voted yes on Prop 8. Just
think about that for a moment.

A Call to Account and for Accountability - A Losing Strategy That
Didn't Have to Be

I blame an incompetent campaign that blew through $40 Million and had
little to show for it but a losing strategy.

The Yes on 8 proponents relied on an early gusher of funding, much of
it from the Morman Church. So No on * was initially hampered and swamped
in early fundraising. No on 8 raised $15 Million before October 1 and
$25 Million after October 1; this trend was reversed for Yes on 8
proponents which earned them some strategic advantage.

No on 8 deserves huge accolades for fundraising. Although slow to
start, it was spectacular for shear volume of contributions and the
number of individual contributors. But it turns out that in the end, for
No on 8 -- the gay and lesbian community and our allies -- it wasn't a
matter of money, it turned out to be a matter of simple political
smarts. There were plenty of brilliant attorneys and managers in the
room but apparently no political or grassroots operatives to guide an
electoral strategy, those that were in the room were rebuffed.

It is painful for our community to face such a public rejection. The
dimensions of that pain from rejection are where many of us live our
lives. But it did not have to be. So this moment represents a special
time for painful introspection about a lost opportunity and a new
opportunity for profound learning.

I hereby call upon activists, community leaders and local, state and
national organizations in California and throughout the country to hold
Community Town Hall forums to account for such a momentous series of
campaign blunders. We need a transparent comprehensive campaign
post-mortem, to air concerns, share collective wisdom and to jointly
plan our future. Democracy is messy; it's inside that mess where we
regain traction.

We need to have an open two-way conversation that rectifies the
insularity of this campaign, where our diverse community is welcome at
the table and no voice is shut out. This must involve everyone: young
and old, street activists, uber-lesbigays, celebri-gays, leatherfolk,
allies, donors and leadership.

In Los Angeles County, I call for a forthright and blunt introspection
about what went wrong, without defensiveness or recrimination. There
needs to be full accountability before we can trust our leaders with
another $40 Million for a future initiative endeavor for which we are
already being called upon to support. For a future campaign to succeed,
we must be there together for the liftoff if they want us there for the

The starter for these forums should be the words, "We screwed up and
here's what we need to learn from it. What do you think?" Then those
responsible for this campaign need to listen quietly with contrition in
their hearts and an open ear as the sorrow of our anguish meets the
redemption of our ambitions.

Any good news?

What can we take from this debacle? Despite such a bungled campaign
and a loss of a 20 point lead, support still grew by 10% over 2000
Proposition 22 results narrowing the margin of loss to a slender 4%.
Imagine what we could have done with a well crafted campaign strategy.

We can learn from what went right in a County like Santa Barbara where
No on 8 succeeded 53-47 despite the state campaign strategy, not because
of it. This is a county where, due to culture and geographic isolation,
political campaigns are never won by media but by the shoe leather of
smart locally originated and implemented field operations. Unlike the
state No on 8 campaign strategy, local leaders targeted the very areas
lost to Prop 22, joined local precinct walk operations and GOTV
programs, organized the faith community, secured and publicized
important endorsements and, most importantly, they successfully
humanized the issue. It is an excellent case study since this one County
mirrors the most extreme political divisions of the state as a whole. If
you can win in a region that is evenly split between coastal progressive
voters and inland conservative voters, you can win almost anywhere in

The silver lining is that shifting voter demographics reveal an
inevitable generational and historical trend toward acceptance of gay
civil rights. As previously mentioned our community deserves huge
accolades for fundraising. Impressively, half of all donations to No on
Prop 8 were in amounts less than $100 which is promising as it indicates
width of active support.

This devastating loss jolted and awakened new generations of gay,
lesbian and our outraged allies out of their slumber around the world.
It is awesome to witness the sea of humanity at our protests. When our
civil rights are ripped away, we bleed.

To mangle a saying, now we need to get angry and get organized. Let's
build upon this new energy, build a new movement, and learn the new ways
of organizing. And let's learn from our mistakes, not by making bigger
and better mistakes, but by avoiding them next time. It is time for the
elders to begin passing along the successful strategies of our struggles
to the next generations and then join in a new torch relay together.

That many of our western allies are ahead of the United States on gay
marriage offers hope that America lead by an Obama Administration,
rather than bringing up the rear, will once again reassert it's
leadership on human rights issues in the world. And it is positive the
Mormon Church has finally been publicly outted for its obsessive
anti-gay electoral activities.

So the battle and the struggle continues and it now moves back to the
Supreme Court where only last May they recognized our fundamental rights
and made an unprecedented declaration that sexual orientation is a
legally protected class from discrimination.

Judging by their sweeping ruling last May, I believe they are
expecting us...

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,
many of whom face rejection due to their sexual orientation. He formerly
served as the highest ranking openly gay officer of the California
Democratic Party and oversaw numerous campaign efforts including local
unified Democratic campaigns for Bill Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and
Barbara Boxer, among others. Leftgoff is a former political and
environmental consultant from Santa Barbara who ran both candidate and
issue campaigns which included media messaging and response. He lead
numerous regional fundraising and grassroots campaign committees against
a number of anti-gay issues including Propositions 64, 69, 96 and 102.
He is currently an Environmental, Government & Public Relations
consultant living in West Hollywood. He is single and hopes to be able
to marry someday.
1. 'Polling on Prop. 8 - California's Same Sex Marriage Ban', by Mark
DiCamillo, Director of the California Field Poll,, 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.
3. 'The Church and the Negro', John Lewis Lund. Deseret Books.
4. CNN Exit Polling Data
5. Mulkey v. Reitman (1966) 64 Cal.2d 529, affd. sub nom.Reitman v.
Mulkey (1967) 387 U.S. 369

Although I disagree with the central thesis of the piece ("we blew it" since I actually do not think Proposition 8 was winnable unless we had reached 50% public approval on the marriage equality question) as well as the call to action to hold public forums where leaders of the campaign express contrition.

However, I do think there are numerous good points in the piece and thus are posting it here as a favor to a friend.


Anonymous said...

You don't get it. The reason you lost is in something you said.. You proposed a public trashing of the LDS church, by reaching back a long time and condemning them for the sins of their fathers.

Perhaps as a political strategy, it might have worked.

As a model of demonstrating how prejudiced the movement and to what depths you will trash others to get your way... Serves only to bolster the very proper perception you should NEVER be allowed your way, and the trashing of others is all the proof that's needed.

Anonymous said...

Terry, you should have been directing the whole No On 8 campaign. Seriously.

P.S. "Anonymous" is a braindead bigot.

Anonymous said...

Two points, one, that the black voters would be tied up with the Mormon's considering their teachings about blacks is beyond amazing.

And, two, that 70% of the black voter has been debunked by Andrea Shorter, campaign director for And Marriage for All, said pollsters like David Binder found only 56 percent of black voters had favored the measure.

That would bring black voters almost in step with the state's white voters, but Binder's office didn't provide confirmation of that number by press time. The CNN poll found that almost one of every two whites voted for Prop 8.

Anonymous said...

Let's see... the author claims that the winning strategy is to turn the country prejudiced against a church and its adherents.

IE, the way to win is to make people hate each other.

And then they call the guy who pointed it out... "a braindead bigot".

Whatever I may think of the theology or history of the various churches in no way justifies a public campaign to generate public prejudice against the members.

Your creed appears to be "and tolerance for only those who support our political goals, and campaigns of hate for all who do not". If this is your vision of America, I want no part of it. I can disagree with you politically and even morally or over religion or lack thereof, and do so without hating you and I find no need to publicly trash you, much less fund campaigns of personal villification against you on tv. We just disagree about how civilization survives. And, at this moment, it appears that your willingness to break down civility and civilization by promoting division and anger and prejudice disqualifies you from any consideration on my part.

Basically, you're saying that the key to what you want is to make being Mormon (or Christian, or whatever group you turn on at any particular moment) the new object of prejudice (the new black, the new Jew, the new Irish, or whatever cultural historic prejudices have existed world wide). And you want it to be done. If you can find no problem with this, I have a severe problem with you.


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