Newly released study says ads claiming same-sex marriage would endanger children, run late in the campaign, swayed enough parents to pass California’s anti-gay marriage amendment
Lisa Keen | Keen News Service LisaKeen@aol.com
Proposition 8 passed in November 2008 because parents with kids living at home were scared and the LGBT community did nothing to assuage that fear.
That’s the conclusion of an exhaustive, 448-page analysis of the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which passed by 52 percent-to-48 percent — or barely 600,000 votes — in an election in which 13.7 million votes were cast.
But 500,000 of those 600,000 votes were ready to side with the LGBT community against Proposition 8 up until the last six weeks of the campaign.
During those last six weeks, explained the report’s author, David Fleischer, the Yes on 8 campaign saturated the television airwaves with advertisements that borrowed from the 30-year-old Anita Bryant “Save the Children” campaign from 1977.
The advertisements — also used successfully in 2009 in Maine — told parents that the legalization of same-sex marriage would require public schools to teach children that same-sex marriage is a viable option for them. The No on 8 campaign failed to respond directly and quickly to that claim and, thus, lost the vote.
Fleischer’s analysis — “The Prop 8 Report: What Defeat in California Can Teach Us about Winning Future Ballot Measures on Same-sex Marriage,” — was released Aug. 3 and drives home the point that “anti-gay forces know how to exploit and stimulate anti-gay prejudice, and the LGBT community has difficulty facing and responding to the attack.”
“Recycling a lie as old as Anita Bryant’s ‘Save the Children’ campaign in 1977,” said Fleischer, “the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign whipped up fears about kids to move voters to its side.”
Fleischer rejected analyses proffered by other political observers who suggested that African-American voters had been the deciding factor in the Proposition 8 vote. He also rejected a recent analysis by political scientist Patrick Egan, who said spending large amounts of money on ad campaigns has no impact because most voters’ minds on gay ballot measures are made up long before election day.
Instead, Fleischer lays the passage of Proposition 8 at the feet of “parents with children under 18 living at home,” saying that about 500,000 such voters switched from “no” to “yes” on 8 in the closing weeks. And he says the No on 8 ad campaign could have made a difference if it had responded quickly and directly to the fears parlayed by the Yes on 8 ads.
The most effective Yes on 8 ad, said Fleischer, was one showing a little girl coming home and telling her mother that she had just learned in school that a prince can marry a prince and that she could marry a princess.
The narrator then claimed that, “When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, schools began teaching second-graders that boys can marry boys. … The courts ruled parents had no right to object.”
“The lesson of the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign,” said Fleischer, is that “when parents hear that their kids are in danger, even if it’s a lie, some of them believe it — particularly when the lie largely goes unanswered.”
“Those ads are fear-mongering directed at parents to make them think their children are in danger,” said Fleischer, during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Aug. 3.
He noted that daily polling data showed that adults with no children at home did not show any change in their plans to vote against Proposition 8 once the so-called “Princes” ad started airing, but adults with children at home changed their plans — from voting against to voting for Proposition 8 — in dramatic numbers.
The “Princes” ad was on the air by Oct. 7, just a week after Yes on 8 had begun airing another TV ad in which San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was shown telling a crowd that gay marriage is “going to happen — whether you like it or not.”
Prior to those ads going up, said Fleischer, polling showed a virtual tie on the Proposition 8 question.
“Yes on 8’s fear-mongering about children was particularly effective because No on 8 waited 17 of the 30 days remaining until the election was over to directly respond,” said Fleischer.
“[W]hen an anti-LGBT campaign alleging indoctrination of kids unfolds on TV; and when that campaign is well-funded enough that the average voters see ads exploiting anti-gay prejudice five or more times each week for four to five weeks; then the ads generate, awaken, reawaken or reinforce a response among some voters that moves them to vote against the LGBT community,” wrote Fleischer in his report.
The report can be viewed in its entirety at Prop8Report.org.
Fleischer spent many years training openly gay candidates to run for elective office as a part of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and then the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He notes, in the report, that he has participated in more than 100 campaigns to “preempt, stop, delay, and overcome anti-LGBT ballot measures.”
His analysis examined more than 10,000 pages of data and related documents and included more than 40 hours of interviews with No on 8 officials. Fleischer also analyzed the use and penetration of every television ad aired by both the pro- and anti-gay campaigns in Proposition 8.
Fleischer says data shows that the initiative, approved by a margin of about 600,000 votes, secured 687,000 votes in the last six weeks of the campaign. More than 500,000 of these crucial last-minute shifters were parents with children under 18 living at home.
Parents, noted Fleischer, comprised about 30 percent of the 13.7 million voters in California in November 2008. While Yes on 8 initially had only a two-point lead over No on 8 in this 4 million-strong demographic group, it had a 24-point lead on election day.
“Overall, parents with kids under 18 at home began the campaign evenly divided on same-sex marriage,” said Fleischer, “but ended up against us by a lopsided margin.”
But they weren’t the only groups to shift away from a pro-gay position.
“Other groups that moved significantly in favor of the ban on same-sex marriage included white Democrats (by 24 points), voters in the greater Bay Area (31 points), voters age 30-39 (29 points), and Independent voters (26 points).”
Fleischer criticized the No on 8 campaign for delegating “too much of the thinking and therefore too much of the de facto decision-making” to consultants. And he said its message to voters was “vague, inconsistent, and too often de-gayed, reducing its power to persuade.”
No on 8 took too long to respond to the “Princes” ad, said Fleischer, because its decision-makers “did not choose to directly respond to the attack.”
There had been a change in leadership in the No on 8 campaign just a week before “Princes” began airing, and the new decisions-makers also hired a new media firm to create their ads. But their failure to act quickly and directly was hardly anything new.
“The LGBT community has historically avoided responding directly to the issue of kids,” said Fleischer, “in part out of the belief that no response will defuse the issue, and in part out of a wish not to have to face this unfair, untrue defamation.”
But that failure to respond, said Fleischer, amounts to a “decision not to defend LGBT people as trustworthy.”
Ballot measures over gay civil rights issues have been taking place throughout the United States since 1974, but pro-gay ballot campaigns didn’t even use the word “gay” until 2002 and didn’t use an openly gay spokesperson until 2004.
Although acknowledging that he had not studied Maine as thoroughly as California, Fleischer also criticized the No on 1 campaign there that fought an initiative to repeal the state’s marriage equality law.
He said the No on 1 campaign also avoided responding directly to the “kids are in danger” ads and even avoided using the word “gay” in all but one of their own ads.
Rather than respond to the Yes on 1’s claim that marriage equality would put the kids of voters in danger, noted Fleischer, No on 1 talked about the need to protect gay kids and children with gay parents.
Post-election data from Maine’s campaign — which repealed its marriage equality law in 2009 — suggested the parents’ concerns there were not that kids would experiment with being gay. Instead, said Fleischer, parents were concerned their kids would accept gay couples and that other kids would be raised by gay parents.
Fleischer strongly recommended that the LGBT community not return to the ballot box “until we are prepared to vitiate this [child-related fear-mongering] attack.”
He also urges future campaigns to adopt a more modern approach to campaigning — one that calls for quick, direct and forceful responses to attacks.
Fleischer’s analysis was not entirely critical of the No on 8 campaign. He credited the campaign with enlisting a “record-breaking” number of volunteers and dollars, and making “a series of smart choices that maximized the number of dollars raised and volunteers involved.”
Kate Kendell, one of the best known No on 8 leaders, said of Fleischer’s report, “I think we need to learn all we can about how to win these campaigns and we need to digest all the info we get to do that.”
Meanwhile, Equality California, which was a key component of the No on 8 campaign in 2008, issued a press release July 20 indicating it plans to organize for a ballot measure to repeal Proposition 8 in 2012.
© 2010 Keen News Service
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.