Thursday, February 21, 2013

Messages from 2012 marriage equality campaigns

The front page of The Public Eye, the newsletter of Political Research Associates shouts: "WHY MARRIAGE WON -- the Right's marriage messages and the 2012 elections." David Dodge has investigated media strategies used by opponents of marriage equality as well as by winning LGBT-led campaigns in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington state. The full report is online here.

Last November's elections were a breakthrough for same-sex marriage at the ballot box; after 37 straight losses, we won affirmative marriage laws in three states and defeated an anti-marriage equality state constitutional amendment in Minnesota. Dodge points out several differences in the media strategies from previous campaigns. Two particularly struck me:
  • Anti-LGBT forces chose to rely more heavily on "victim" messages than in the past.
    Previously, particularly in their winning campaign for Prop. 8 in California in 2008, anti-marriage equality campaigns had leaned heavily on warnings that gay marriage would somehow hurt kids. Maybe they'd be taught in school that two mommies or two daddies could live together! All the polling research shows that this is deeply unsettling to undecided voters, especially to younger parents with kids.

    But this time around, the antis emphasized "victim" messages in about half their ads. Dodge explains

    N[ational] O[rganization for] M[arriage] hoped to co-opt and neutralize pro-LGBTQ charges that anti-LGBTQ positions are homophobic or discriminatory. …The Right paints those who hold anti-same-sex marriage views as "victims" of religious persecution, contending that churches would be required to conduct same-sex marriages were the practice to become legal. This language has expanded to include faith-based non-profits in the last few years, and grown wider in scope so that now the Right warns that individuals' beliefs regarding sexual orientation -- as with contraception -- are the target of state-based religious persecution.

    This seems completely unsurprising to me, given that the Roman Catholic Church was funding and vigorously supporting the anti-gay campaigns. Anti-marriage campaigns were on message with their friends the Catholic Bishops, even though this dragged them away from messages that might have been more effective for their cause. I wonder if those Catholic Bishops have become reticent about pretending they are the protectors of children?

    Moreover, it is not entirely surprising that "victim" messages were so prominent. People who oppose gay marriage probably do feel as if they are being bowled over by a tsunami of changing social attitudes. State after state has adopted gay marriage; the 2012 electorate was younger, browner and more cosmopolitan than previous US voter pools. Opposing gay marriage is a losing game -- feelings of being victimized come right after denial.
  • In these winning campaigns, pro-marriage equality messages stressed "pro-LBGTQ" messages instead of "rights" messages.
    According to Dodge, past campaigns have tended to focus on the some 1400 legal rights not available to gay people when we cannot marry: matters of child custody, inheritance, health insurance, etc. He reports that such messages have "worked" -- in Oregon, in 2010, 42 percent of voters said that gay people want to get married in order to have rights. But when these straight voters were asked, 72 percent of them said they got married for love, not "rights."

    … LGBTQ advocates have been communicating to voters that LGBTQ couples get married for different reasons than their heterosexual peers.

    This year pro-marriage equality messages focussed on the emotional content of gay relationships, saying in effect: see, these people love each other; why shouldn't they be able to marry?

    I see this shift as a sign of the increasing self-confidence of the gay community. Saying to the world this is about love makes us more emotionally vulnerable than complaining it's only fair … Given the experience of rejection many of us have suffered, it is not surprising that our first recourse is demand our common humanity rather than to show our feelings in public. But as gay lives and partnerships have come to be seen as unexceptional in more and more places, it has become safer to risk going to the emotional heart of the matter. Hence more emotional messages, though often delivered by straight family members or neighbors.
Actually, I think gay people will get married -- when we can -- for the same mixed bag of reasons that other people do: love, health insurance, romance, custom, companionship, etc. But we're getting to the point that the social response has become, why not? instead of incomprehension or revulsion. Good for all of us.

Here is a campaign ad from last year in the new vein:

They are sweet, aren't they?

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