Before coalitions can begin to convince heterosexual voters to oppose the proposed amendments on the grounds that they are discriminatory, Wolfson said they must first deal with charged emotions many people experience when talking about gay people.
“To [deliver] practical and logical messages, they’ve still got to get people to want to be fair,” Wolfson said. “People have to have some real information of the real families and the fact that this is about gay people and about marriage.”
“People know that on some level, this is a vote about gay people,” Wolfson said. “The cat’s out of the bag.”
Wolfson was an attorney involved in the landmark legal case in Hawaii that said banning gays from marriage was unconstitutional. In that effort, he supported a strategy to defeat a gay marriage ballot measure by focusing on protecting the constitution, as opposed to securing marriage for gay couples.
“That [strategy] was an attempt to run away from the words ‘gay’ and ‘marriage’ to find a message that should resonate, but didn’t,” Wolfson said.
Despite spending .4 million fighting Hawaii’s proposed marriage ban in 1998, opponents suffered a resounding loss, 69 percent to 31 percent.
The losses in Hawaii and California helped convince Wolfson that gay marriage supporters must engage the general public in a more direct manner by letting them know who they are and the discrimination they face.
“If we help them to understand the discrimination, then summon them to say the discrimination is wrong, then we can move them,” Wolfson said. “The actual discussion about marriage — heated and charged as it is — is moving the center in our direction.”
Seth Kilbourn, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights group, said it is counterproductive to extrapolate any messaging strategies from earlier ballot initiative fights in Hawaii and California, and try to apply them in states currently facing marriage bans.
“I don’t think there are any grand lessons that, in sort of a cookie cutter approach, can be applied to all these other states,” Kilbourn said. “Each state is very different, each proposed ballot measure is written differently and no two states are going to run the exact same kind of campaign.”
If states are considered battleground states in the presidential election, amendment opponents need to argue that the measure is a ploy by conservatives to mobilize their base on Election Day. Yet if organizers believe voters can be swayed by an argument in favor of civil unions, that should be part of the strategy, Kilbourn said.
“We need to employ all of these messages to prevail,” Kilbourn said. “These arguments are what may persuade enough voters by November.”
If amendment opponents spend too much energy trying to win support for marriage equality, they may run out of time to defeat the amendments, Kilbourn said.
“The time frame is just too short to educate and persuade enough voters on the merits of marriage for gays and lesbians,” he said.
Wolfson agreed that focusing on marriage equality would make success all the more unlikely in the states considering the amendments, but said the national fight for gay equality extends beyond the next two or three months.
“I think unfortunately many of the states coming under attack this year are vulnerable,” Wolfson said. “But even in states that are up against these odds, and where it may be difficult to pull out a victory in a three-month election cycle, people can use these battles to increase understanding about gay people and our families, and prepare for the inevitable next round.”
But Kilbourn, from HRC, said gays may have the ability to defeat the amendments in several states, and must adopt practical messages that aid that cause.
“I think campaigns should determine what their actual goals are from the get-go, then plan their campaign strategy from there,” Kilbourn said.
HRC puts money in Ore., Mich. only
Kilbourn said HRC has had contact with the coalitions fighting the bans, but the national organization will focus its resources on helping groups with a clear campaign fund-raising plan in place, and can show “evidence in polling that the campaigns have some chance at winning.”
Kilbourn said efforts in Oregon and Michigan meet those guidelines.
Steven Fisher, HRC communications director, was asked to provide figures detailing how much money HRC contributed to each of the ballot initiative campaigns, but did not do so by press time.
HRC was heavily involved in the recent ballot fight in Missouri, where voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage 71 to 29 percent on Aug. 3. The national organization sent field workers and 0,000 to assist the Constitution Defense League, which was leading opposition to the amendment.
Jeff Wunrow, deputy campaign manager for the Constitution Defense League, said the campaign’s messaging strategy was to emphasize current Missouri law banning same-sex marriages and paint the amendment as unnecessary and discriminatory.