On May 9, President Obama sat for an interview in the White House with the ABC News anchor Robin Roberts. Both of them knew what she'd been summoned there to discuss, and Roberts didn't waste any time. "So, Mr. President," she said, "are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?"
Obama was ready for the question. A few days before, Vice President Biden had said on Meet the Press that he was "comfortable" with men marrying men and women marrying women. The surprise statement went against the president's own ambiguous stance, which was that he was against gay marriage but in the process of "evolving." At the same time, evidence of the political risk inherent in the issue was abundant. The day before, May 8, voters in North Carolina -- a key swing state Obama narrowly won in 2008 -- had overwhelmingly voted to ban gay unions, making it the 31st state to take such a step.
Obama sat back in his leather chair, his legs crossed, his hands in his lap, composed and a bit detached. "Well, you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've been going through an evolution on this issue," he began, in his usual roundabout way. "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." He pointed to his administration's repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and its refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He'd hesitated to embrace gay marriage, he said, out of respect for tradition and a belief that civil unions offered enough protection to same-sex partnerships.
But now the president had changed his mind. "I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," he said.
That all changed on Election Day.
On November 6, four states -- Maine, Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota -- took the side of gay marriage in ballot referenda. The improbable sweep for an issue that spent decades as an across-the-board political loser has already changed the landscape for gay rights in America -- and could provide a new framework for other causes: The leaders of other social movements, such as the campaign for gun control, are already studying the methods behind the gay-marriage campaigners' victory.
This is the exclusive story of that victory, based on reporting that began more than a month before Election Day; dozens of interviews; and access to scores of internal communications.
Engineering a Revolution
Today, America stands on the brink of a gay-marriage tipping point. The Supreme Court's announcement Friday that it would hear two cases related to gay marriage, including an appeal on California's Proposition 8, raised the possibility that by next summer legal gay marriage could be the law of the land.
But prior to November, gay marriage had been placed on 31 state ballots -- and voted down 31 times. Even in blue states like California (2008) and Maine (2009), defeat was universal. To opponents of gay marriage, that perfect record had become a powerful talking point -- proof that American voters stood firmly against any redefinition of the fundamental societal institution. "The people of this country have not changed their view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage,told me in August. "The only poll that counts is the vote, and we've never lost the vote."
Now that that's changed, it's easy, especially for satisfied liberals, to see the results as simply the inexorable forward march of progress -- the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice as public opinion becomes ever more enlightened. But like Obama's announcement, there was more to these victories than met the eye.
"Somebody said to me, 'Oh, you had Maine and Washington, those are easy states,'" said Amy Simon, a Democratic pollster who conducted research for this year's campaigns. "Let me tell you, there was some bristling on the other end of the phone." Until this year, she noted, Maine had two Republican senators, and in 2010 had elected a Tea Party-inspired governor and awarded Republicans control of the statehouse. It has America's oldest electorate, a large rural population, and a high proportion of Catholics -- all challenging demographics for gay-marriage campaigners. "That was the easy case? Are you kidding me?" Simon said. "This inevitability storyline is a rewrite of history to me."
The breakthrough victories for gay marriage in 2012 were narrow and hard-won. They were the result of meticulous work by a disciplined group of operatives who had vowed, after the defeats of 2008 and 2009, to find a way to win at the ballot box. Some gay-rights activists and donors were so dispirited after the California loss that they didn't think it could be done, at least not yet -- the public just wasn't ready. Many argued it was too big a risk. But Wolfson and his allies believed they could, in Simon's words, "create a tipping point" by combining smart political campaigning with a persuasion effort unprecedented in its depth and duration.
Obsessed With Marriage
When Obama came out for gay marriage, Wolfson could take credit for more than just the words the president used. He also helped put the issue on Obama's agenda in the first place.
Biden's accidental statement may have spurred the president to action, but a pressure campaign on Obama had been quietly gaining steam for months. Earlier in the year, Wolfson's group had led the charge to get gay marriage included in the platform to be presented at the Democratic Party's convention, a move that was controversial on the left but quickly gained momentum.
The positive response to the platform drive startled even the activists behind it. They'd anticipated a slow build and lots of lobbying; instead, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi jumped on board the very next day, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic convention, announced his support soon after. Within days, more than 20 senators had gotten behind the effort and David Plouffe, Obama's senior adviser and 2008 campaign manager, was getting asked about the possibility of a gay-marriage platform fight on the Sunday political talk shows. "Some of our senior staff went, 'Holy shit, this is out of control,'" Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry's national campaign director, told me.
A short, round, bald, slightly nebbishy presence, Wolfson, ironically enough, resembles more than anything a New York divorce attorney. Ironically, because marriage has been the consuming obsession of Wolfson's life and career. Nearly three decades ago, for his final paper at Harvard Law School in 1983, Wolfson wrote about same-sex marriage, a topic his professors regarded as exotic to the point of eccentricity. (The idea of marriage for gays and lesbians wasn't totally new -- three gay-marriage lawsuits had been filed in American courts by 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots -- but they'd been essentially laughed out of court, and few in legal circles saw reason to revisit the issue.)
After law school, Wolfson worked first as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, then for the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra affair. Meanwhile, on legal pads late into the night, he wrote pro bono briefs for the Lambda Legal Fund, which litigates on behalf of gay rights. He worked on discrimination cases involving AIDS patients and helped sue the Boy Scouts on behalf of gay youths. Eventually, he went to work for Lambda full time. All the while, he kept thinking about, and arguing for, marriage. Wolfson was co-counsel on the Hawaii Supreme Court case that, in 1993, became the first-ever victory for same-sex marriage in an American court. But the ruling merely spurred voters and the state legislature to quickly find new ways to outlaw gay marriage in Hawaii -- the first of the voter-approved anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendments.
That marriage should be a central fight of the gay-rights movement was sometimes a tough sell. Other battles, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis, seemed more vital; many activists questioned whether gays should even want to participate in the ultimate heteronormative social institution. And in a society where sodomy laws would not be struck down by the Supreme Court until 2003, marriage seemed impossibly far-fetched. Wolfson saw it partly from a legalistic point of view -- without the ability to get married, gays were denied many legal protections afforded to other Americans. He was adamant that civil unions, which offer some of the rights of marriage under a distinct legal category, represented an unacceptable "separate but equal" status. ("I had a long argument over civil unions with Evan in 2004," a former Log Cabin Republicans board member told me ruefully. "He won.")
To Wolfson, the fight for marriage was about making gays full participants in American life and fully human in the eyes of their fellow citizens. "This was something that would transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are," he told me. "It would help people understand gay people as fully rounded human beings, with the hopes and dreams and human aspirations we all have." Other gay-rights struggles were mainly about convincing people to overlook sexual orientation, in employment or medical care or military service. Marriage is about what makes gay people who they are: their relationships with others of the same sex. In ratifying marriage for gays and lesbians, society would be ratifying the core of their identity -- their love for one another.
When Wolfson founded Freedom to Marry in 2003, gay marriage was not yet legal in any U.S. jurisdiction. For years, it was a small-budget nonprofit that chiefly served as a platform for his own speeches and advocacy. But after the electoral defeats in California in 2008 and Maine in 2009, he realized the group needed to be something more. Part of the reason gay marriage kept losing, he saw, was that it was constantly on the defensive. Gay-marriage opponents, often backed by the Republican Party and Catholic and evangelical churches, would methodically mobilize activists, collect signatures, and put gay-marriage bans on the ballot; state-level activists who supported gay marriage would then have a few months to assemble an ad-hoc defense, scrambling to raise money and come up with a message in an effort that was inevitably too little, too late. The gay-rights movement had a variety of national groups devoted to causes like workplace rights and gays in the military, but there wasn't a single, national organization campaigning only for same-sex marriage.
In 2009, Wolfson began expanding Freedom to Marry. It grew from four staffers and a $1.4 million budget just three years ago to 17 staffers and $9 million today. He brought on high-powered fundraisers, pollsters, and political consultants. He called for a full-scale reassessment of past tactics and a blueprint for future action.
When it came to the ballot box, just as gay-marriage opponents were convinced they couldn't lose, some proponents had become convinced they were jinxed. Wolfson refused to believe that. Against all evidence to the contrary, he thought his side could win.
How California Was Lost
To understand how gay marriage triumphed in 2012, you have to understand how it lost in California in 2008. The success of Proposition 8, which overturned a court order granting same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, shocked and traumatized gay-rights activists.
Shortly after the 2008 election, a political consultant named Frank Schubert published an article in Campaigns & Elections magazine called "Passing Prop 8." Nobody, he wrote, had believed that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage could succeed in California, one of the most liberal states in the country, in a year when millions of liberal voters were drawn to the polls by excitement about Barack Obama. And yet, Schubert and his coauthor wrote, "conventional wisdom was stood on its head," and voters approved Prop 8 by a 700,000-vote margin.
chubert served as the campaign manager for Prop 8. His side's first crucial decision, he said, was to avoid criticizing the same-sex couples who were already getting married. "After all," he wrote, "they were simply taking advantage of the rights the Court had granted them."
With gay-rights activists eager to brand Prop 8 proponents as bigots, Schubert felt it was important to demonstrate they were not against gay individuals or relationships per se. "Passing Proposition 8 would depend on our ability to convince voters that same-sex marriage had broader implications for Californians and was not only about the two individuals involved in a committed gay relationship," he wrote.
The central message of Schubert's Prop 8 campaign would be that there were consequences to legalizing gay marriage. "We reconfirmed in our early focus groups our own views that Californians had a tolerant opinion of gays. But there were limits to the degree of tolerance that Californians would afford the gay community. They would entertain allowing gay marriage, but not if doing so had significant implications for the rest of society."
The Prop 8 campaign's most effective ad became notorious in the gay community. In Schubert's words, it featured "a young Hispanic girl coming home from school, explaining how she had learned in class that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess!" Another ad featured a Massachusetts couple who said their son had been taught about gay marriage in the second grade.
Opponents of Prop 8 were slow to respond. When they did, it was with rebuttal ads insisting the education-based attacks were dishonest and education would not be affected by legal gay marriage. What happened next Schubert would later regard as his biggest break of the election. As he described it, "In what may prove to be the most ill-considered publicity stunt ever mounted in an initiative campaign, a public school in San Francisco took a class of first graders to City Hall to witness the wedding of their lesbian teacher. And they brought along the media."
The threat to children was no longer hypothetical. Immediately, the pro-Prop 8 campaign had an ad on statewide television "showing bewildered six-year-olds at a lesbian wedding courtesy of their local public school," as Schubert put it.
In the days before the election, Prop 8's opponents tried to change the subject to civil rights. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein narrated an ad calling on voters to oppose discrimination and protect gay marriage. In another, Samuel L. Jackson compared outlawing gay marriage to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. "We decided to not respond to this line of attack, confident that it would backfire," Schubert wrote in his article. "The basic message that supporters of traditional marriage are bigots, guilty of discrimination, had never worked in focus groups. For liberal whites like Feinstein to lecture black Californians about discrimination was not a winning message."
In the final count, Proposition 8 prevailed by a 52-48 margin, buoyed by the support of majorities of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. In Schubert's telling, it was the story of a well-executed strategy succeeding. "The Prop 8 victory proves something that readers of [this] magazine know very well," Schubert wrote: "Campaigns matter."
For gay-marriage proponents, the defeat was a stunning one. They'd had as much money as their opponents and the most favorable conditions imaginable, yet they'd lost decisively. Recriminations flew; some despaired; others wanted to start campaigning again right away and put the issue back on the ballot in 2010.
As Amy Simon, the San Francisco-based pollster, watched the Prop 8 fight from the sidelines, it was clear to her that something had to change. Simon's research often focuses on emotionally complex social issues like late-term abortion and euthanasia. She could tell from watching the Prop 8 campaign that the opponents of gay marriage were hitting voters in the heart and the gut while supporters tried in vain to appeal to their heads. "It was so painful to watch," she said. "After the election was over, I was calling everyone I knew, saying, 'Let me in. We can do this.'"
Using funding cobbled together from a variety of foundations and advocacy groups, Simon conducted 25 focus groups and a detailed, 2,000-interview survey across California in 2009, trying to pin down the underlying emotional dynamics that were driving the voters who were "in the middle" on gay marriage. A wide swath, as much as 40 percent of the electorate, was neither absolutely in favor nor absolutely opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage.
Simon's sessions could be wrenching. A participant in one focus group had been screened as a soft opponent of gay marriage, yet she spent half an hour sounding very supportive. She talked enthusiastically about her affection for the gay people in her daily life, including gay coworkers and a lesbian sister-in-law. "Finally, I said to her, 'When we called you, you said you were undecided or leaning against [gay marriage]. Did we make a mistake?'" Simon recalled. "She looked at me and she stopped, and she said, 'No, no, no.' Then she started crying, and she said, 'I want to be for this. But I'm afraid I'm going to burn in hell.'"
Simon found many voters were struggling as painfully as that woman with the issue of gay marriage. Their "undecided" status didn't come from a lack of feelings on the issue. They were powerfully conflicted, caught between two deep-seated sentiments: On the one hand, a desire to be fair and compassionate toward their fellow man; on the other, a loyalty to what they saw as the ironclad teachings of religion, tradition, or culture.
"These were not mean people, not bigots, not bad people," said Thalia Zepatos, who, as Freedom to Marry's director of public engagement, spent 2010 synthesizing a massive amount of marriage-related research -- collating nearly 100 different surveys, studies, exit polls and focus groups from every state that had considered the issue, including new research the group commissioned. "As long as they'd ever thought about marriage, they'd had a certain image of what it meant, and now all of a sudden we were asking them to expand that," she said. "They had questions that deserved to be answered."
In survey after survey, researchers would ask people what marriage meant to them -- not gay marriage, but the concept of marriage itself. And the answers were always the same: Marriage meant love and commitment. Even people who'd been divorced three times would say the same thing. Then the researchers would ask, "Why do you think gay people want to get married?" and the answers would change: They want rights and benefits. They're trying to make a political point. They don't understand what marriage is really about. Most commonly, respondents said they simply didn't know.
"I worked on the marriage campaign in Oregon in 2004, and we had ads with a judge in a law library, talking about rights, saying it was wrong to deny people these rights," Zepatos said. "That was considered one of the most effective campaigns [for gay marriage] in the country." Yet it failed, like all the others, and in a sudden, breathtaking epiphany, Zepatos saw why. The advocates of gay marriage had successfully convinced people that gay marriage was something different from regular marriage. It was presented to the public as a technicality -- a matter of hospital visitations and burial plots. Such technicalities were important to activists, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, when they'd had real and devastating consequences. But it was no wonder fair-minded, tolerant straight people couldn't see that gay people wanted to get married because they loved and wanted to commit to one another.
What, then, was the better way to sell gay marriage? The first step was to stop calling it gay marriage or "same-sex marriage," which put it in its own category. In the same way clever Republican pollsters once rebranded the estate tax the "death tax," gay-marriage proponents started talking, simply, about marriage. (This has produced some confusing situations, as both sides of the gay-marriage debate now call themselves "pro-marriage." In Maine, for example, the group in favor of gay marriage on this year's ballot was called Mainers United for Marriage, while the anti-gay-marriage group was Protect Marriage Maine.) To liberal audiences, the new preferred term is "marriage equality"; to conservatives, it's "freedom to marry."
The research found that the most effective message was "committed, long-term gay couples doing the same things that married couples do," in the words of a November 2011 Freedom to Marry research memo -- "mowing the lawn, helping an elderly neighbor, and talking about their hopes and dreams." Gay people needed to talk about marriage more: Many assumed their friends, colleagues, and relatives accepted them as deserving of marriage the same way they accepted them as people, when in fact, the same friends often figured that since their gay friends never talked about marriage, it must not be important to them.
Freedom to Marry began field-testing a new type of campaign in Oregon in 2010. Mailers and television ads for the effort, dubbed "Marriage Matters" and undertaken in partnership with a local organization, showed gay couples and straight couples side by side, talking about how long they'd been together and the meaning of marriage to their everyday lives. ("We've been together for 31 years.... We share the laundry, cooking, vacations and the happiness we wish for our children and grandchildren," a beaming lesbian couple said in one mail piece.) The campaign urged people to talk to each other about the meaning of marriage in their own lives and the principle of the Golden Rule, as in this mailer featuring a dialogue between "Kate" and "Darrick."
All of these approaches were rigorously tested in controlled experiments. One population would receive one message; another, similar population would receive another; another would get no "treatment" at all, and pollsters would follow up to see what effect the message had. One of the first such trials actually happened in the heat of the Prop 8 campaign. A small nonprofit called Let California Ring aired a single television ad in the Santa Barbara media market and studied it in comparison with the similar population of the Monterey market, which got no advertising. (The small buy was all the group could afford; a plethora of small, uncoordinated groups was one of the Prop 8 opponents' many tactical problems.)
In the ad, called "Garden Wedding," a bride walking down the aisle keeps hitting obstacles: Her veil catches, her shoe heel breaks, she trips and falls. At the end, her groom -- a man -- is waiting. A tagline reads, "What if you couldn't marry the person you love?" Polling before and after the ad aired found that while support for gay marriage stayed the same in Monterey, it rose 11 points in Santa Barbara.
On Election Day, Proposition 8 was wildly successful in Southern California -- except for a single county, where it lost by 10 points: Santa Barbara.
Building the Map
On January 23, 2012, hundreds of activists for and against gay marriage descended on the Washington state capitol in Olympia, a domed edifice with a pale limestone facade. They gathered in a wood-paneled hearing room of the state senate, where Senator Craig Pridemore, a Democrat from Vancouver, presided over a 10 a.m. hearing on Senate Bill 6239.
The first witness lawmakers would hear was one of their own. Senator Ed Murray, Democrat of Seattle, a veteran legislator and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, took his place at the hearing table. A middle-aged man with receding gray-white hair, Murray has a broad nose and a pockmarked face, and wore a blue suit jacket and blue tie with diagonal stripes.
"Michael and I are going to split the five minutes you gave me, so if I go over two minutes, cut me off," Murray said. His smile vanishing, he glanced down at his notes, wetted his lips, and adjusted his microphone.
"I have waited 17 years to ask this body to consider marriage equality for gay and lesbian families," Murray said. "I realize the issue of marriage for our families is emotional and divisive. It touches what each of us holds most dear -- our families. For Michael and I, there is nothing more important, as I know there is nothing more important for everyone here today, than our families."
The bill Murray was sponsoring would, if passed, legalize gay marriage in Washington. It had the votes it needed in the state house and the backing of the governor. But it was one vote shy of the 25 it needed to pass the state senate.
Michael Shiosaki, Murray's partner of more than 20 years, spoke next.
"When I think of marriage, my model has always been the 56-year marriage of my parents, Fred and Louise Shiosaki," he said. "What I have witnessed over the years has been their lifelong commitment to love and care for one another as they raised their family, my sister, and me in the Spokane Valley. That commitment I see in the relationship Ed and I share, that same promise to love, honor, and care for one another." He talked about his attempts to make Murray more organized and Murray's potato recipes. He talked about how they'd supported each other during the deaths and illnesses of their parents. They were legally bound under the state's domestic-partnership law, he said. But, he added, "Ed and I cannot be married like my mother and father are married."
A parade of witnesses in favor of the bill to legalize gay marriage followed, including a gay state trooper, a gay Iraq war veteran, the adopted child of gay parents, and a straight, churchgoing home-economics teacher who cried as she spoke about her gay daughter. A self-described conservative Republican, married for 44 years, talked about how his gay son had been cared for by his partner after a brain aneurysm. A sweetly nervous 16-year-old said he dreamed of being able to marry another man someday.
Against the bill, the arguments seemed airless by comparison, and often wildly off-message. One lawyer said its provisions allowing churches to decline to perform same-sex weddings didn't go far enough to protect religious liberty; another insisted the bill ran counter to the notion of "humanity as a gendered species." More than one activist asked lawmakers to put same-sex marriage on the ballot rather than enacting it themselves -- a sign of the gay-marriage opponents' continued confidence they could prevail in a statewide vote. A man likened the bill to letting a small group of people suddenly decide everyone should drive on the right side of the road, and warned of the agenda of NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association.
Two pastors, a Catholic archbishop, and a nun said the bill offended them on moral grounds, but a rabbi, a Unitarian minister and a Lutheran bishop spoke for the other side, in favor of the measure. Another man accused the bill's backers of "promoting homosexuality," destroying families, and spreading AIDS.
"History will not be kind to you," warned a California-based author and activist named Jennifer Roback Morse, clad in a bright yellow sweater and large bifocals. "I am here today to hold you to account for the predictable harms you've already caused and will continue to cause with your efforts to redefine marriage. ... When we come to our senses 30 years from now and realize that we have perpetuated a grotesque injustice, not a single child born motherless or fatherless within a same-sex marriage will get his missing parent back."
After the two-hour hearing adjourned, the activists dispersed to lobby their individual legislators. That's when Zach Silk, the operative spearheading the lobbying campaign in favor of the bill, got a text message: The 25th vote had turned. Mary Margaret Haugen, a conservative Democrat, announced that after years of praying about the issue -- and talking with Murray -- she'd made peace with her decision to support same-sex marriage.
As the activists cheered and whooped in the hallways of the legislature, the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington vowed to the Seattle Times, "It's not done. In fact, it's just started." Opponents of gay marriage, he said, would start collecting signatures immediately to put the new law to a vote in that fall's election. Silk knew it was true -- they'd planned for a ballot fight from the moment they started pushing the legislation.
The Washington fight was the second ballot measure to come on the map for 2012. Minnesota's legislature, newly stocked with conservative lawmakers after the 2010 wave of Republican wins, had already moved to put an amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot. Then, just as Washington was gearing up to pass its bill, gay activists in Maine submitted signatures seeking their own ballot initiative -- the first time proponents, rather than opponents, of gay marriage would be the ones to put the issue to a vote. Maine's legislature had passed a same-sex marriage law in 2009, only to have voters overturn it that November. The proponents wanted to try again.
On the surface, the situation in the fourth state, Maryland, mirrored what happened in Washington: The Democratic legislature and governor passed a bill legalizing gay marriage, which opponents then sought to overturn with a ballot initiative. But behind the scenes, there were complications that made officials at Freedom to Marry leery of engaging in a campaign there. The state's main gay-rights group, Equality Maryland, had nearly been forced to close in 2011 amid accusations of financial mismanagement on the part of the executive director. Early polling put public support for same-sex marriage in only the mid-40s, versus majority support in Washington and Maine. Governor Martin O'Malley was strongly behind a gay-marriage bill in the legislature, but there seemed to be no plan for the referendum that would almost certainly follow.
Privately, some wondered if the bill wasn't primarily a vanity project for O'Malley to impress national Democrats in advance of a potential presidential run, especially since another Democratic governor with national aspirations, Andrew Cuomo of New York, had been widely hailed for getting gay marriage passed in his state in 2011. "There seemed to be a certain amount of dick-wagging between the governors of New York and Maryland," as one official put it.
Freedom to Marry was intent on being ruthlessly disciplined about the battles it chose. In an internal memo to guide conversations with donors circulated in late 2011, the group sought to convince them it would not waste their money. It would, its leaders promised, subject state ballot campaigns to a rigorous series of "benchmarks" before agreeing to get involved. "Going to the ballot in 2012 can be a winning strategy in states that meet a specific set of requirements," the memo stated. The requirements would include polling thresholds, levels of organization and fundraising, and enough lead time to lay early groundwork for a successful campaign.
Maine and Washington met the benchmarks. So did Minnesota, where the legislature had placed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. But Maryland did not. (Neither did North Carolina, where Freedom to Marry did not get involved in the referendum banning gay unions that prevailed in May 2012.) Freedom to Marry would share information with the Maryland campaign and offer support where possible, but would not send staff or money.
Politics, Sex, and Religion
Washington would be easy compared to Minnesota. Since 2009, Washington had allowed same-sex couples to form domestic partnerships, giving them many of the same state rights as married couples, and, in Seattle, it possessed one of the West Coast's most vibrant centers of gay culture. The challenge would often turn out to be convincing skeptical voters in Washington that the state needed gay marriage on top of what it already had.
Minnesota, on the other hand, was the heartland, a Midwestern state famous for its buttoned-up, polite, "Minnesota nice" culture. An extrovert in Minnesota, the joke runs, is a Lutheran who looks at someone else's shoes. Outside of the Twin Cities, gay marriage wasn't something people talked about; many older people were reluctant even to say the word "gay." In order to convince these prospective voters, gay-marriage campaigners would have to engage them in long, difficult conversations about politics, sex, and religion. And even if they won, gay marriage would still be illegal in Minnesota -- it just wouldn't be banned by the state constitution.
In September 2011, Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group opposing the gay-marriage ban, invited faith leaders from across the state to an informational session at a Methodist church on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, optimistically hoping perhaps 200 would show. To his amazement, a crowd of more than 700 filled every seat and spilled out of the room.
The clergy -- including four clerics who took leaves of absence from their churches to work full-time for the effort -- would prove to be crucial allies of the Minnesota campaign, helping to blunt the impression of the initiative as a fight between gays on one side and religion on the other. All six of the state's Lutheran bishops came out against the marriage ban initiative, and five of the six Lutheran synods passed resolutions condemning it. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association all opposed the ballot measure. In keeping with church doctrine, the Catholic hierarchy supported the ban, of course, but thousands of individual Catholics worked to defeat it.
In each of the four states where gay marriage was on the ballot, constructing broad coalitions and showcasing them would be crucial. The idea was to show voters that supporters of gay marriage could be churchgoers, or minorities, or even Republicans. In the Washington state campaign, for example, Republican state legislators starred in some ads that emphasized a libertarian message.
Long before the initiatives even reached the ballot, Wolfson and his allies believed preparation, message control, and early investment would be their keys to victory. In Maine, a state with fewer than 700,000 voters, campaigners needed months -- years, even -- to reach enough voters to change minds one by one. At a training session in early 2012 for field staffers in Brewer, Maine, a burg of 10,000 souls outside Bangor, a staffer read this update: "Since April of last year, we've had more than 110,000 one-on-one conversations with Mainers and changed the minds of almost 9,000 of them. Our goal is to have another 70,000 conversations this year -- including 1,400 right here in Brewer."
These would not be the two-sentence interactions of your average political campaign's door-knocking effort. Instead, they would be unlike anything heretofore tried in political outreach: deep, probing conversations designed not merely to hit a few talking points, but to change minds. Trained canvassers would engage in 30- to 60-minute heart-to-hearts, using scripts developed by behavioral scientists and tailored to various segments of the electorate, to draw out wavering voters on the meaning of marriage and faith in their lives.
In Maine, canvassers learned to begin each of these conversations with two precisely scripted, research-based questions. They first asked voters how they felt about marriage for same-sex couples. What came next was a question the campaigners called the "Marriage Three Way." With voters who said they were supportive of same-sex marriage, the canvasser drilled down, asking if they supported marriage or merely some other form of recognition, such as civil unions, for same-sex couples. It might have seemed superfluous to press voters who'd already said they were supporters, but the research had shown that some people who claimed to be in favor of same-sex marriage still preferred civil unions. "These voters," an internal training document for canvassers explained, "are susceptible to the opposition's messages."
Those who'd said they were opposed were asked a slightly different follow-up -- did they support some other form of recognition, such as civil unions, or no recognition at all for same-sex couples? Those who chose the first option, canvassers would attempt to persuade, because "people who generally oppose marriage but support civil unions are very persuadable to support marriage with the right kind of conversation." The latter were considered not persuadable, and the canvassers would thank them and move on.
In instances where the conversation continued, a more free-form discussion would ensue, one centered on shared values, love, and commitment. Canvassers were encouraged to share their own stories -- to talk about their gay friends and relatives, their own guiding values, their experiences with marriage. "There are two great questions on your script: 'Have you ever been married/Do you want to get married?' and 'Do you know any gay or lesbian people?'" the training document instructed. "You'll want to not only ask these questions, but also answer them yourselves. Remember, this is a two-way conversation, not an interview!"
The canvassers were amazed at how little it sometimes took to get people to open up in these chats. In one real, videotaped interaction, a Maine voter initially seems standoffish, telling the worker on her doorstep that her religion forbids gay marriage. But she's soon talking at length about her lesbian niece and gay coworkers, and by the end of the conversation she says she's more "open-minded" now than when she voted against same-sex marriage in 2009.
Finding the Money
Fielding an army of paid canvassers to do this kind of work in time for it to matter would be expensive. The gay-marriage advocates' intensive, bipartisan fundraising effort netted $250,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $500,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a surprise windfall of $2.5 million from the Seattle-based Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, and more than $1 million from Paul Singer, the conservative hedge-fund billionaire who was also one of Mitt Romney's top bundlers in the 2012 presidential election. Tim Gill, a Denver-based technology magnate who runs the nation's largest network of gay donors, gave and helped steer millions in donations to the marriage effort. Meanwhile, after suffering a wave of negative publicity for their involvement in funding Prop 8, Mormons appeared to steer clear of this year's gay-marriage fights, depriving the opposition of a previously rich source of funds.
Having this kind of money early made a difference. In early July, the Washington gay-marriage campaign reserved television ad time in the Seattle market all the way through Election Day, paying rates of between $470 and $520 per gross ratings point, the unit that measures the frequency and audience share of television advertising. By the time their opponents had enough money to purchase airtime in early September, prices had gone up, thanks largely to a competitive gubernatorial race; the gay-marriage opponents paid $728 per point initially, then $790 per point when they added to their ad buy in mid-October, according to the Freedom to Marry's media buyer. By the week before the election, rates were at $800 per point.
But it was anticipating and fending off the opposition's attacks that would prove most valuable to the gay-marriage activists. The veterans of the Prop 8 loss were still deeply scarred by the "Princess" ad and the underlying effectiveness of the claim that same-sex marriage would be promoted to kids in public schools. When Freedom to Marry went to donors, the of attack was often the first thing the donors brought up: Can you beat this? As of late 2011, the answer wasn't clear. "We are in the final stage of refining and testing new approaches on 'harms kids,'" an internal memo optimistically reported. Translation: We think we can do it, but we still aren't sure.
Studying both the Prop 8 fight and the 2009 Maine campaign in which the same attacks were used, Freedom to Marry had learned what didn't work. Rebutting the ads directly, pointing out their distortions and inconsistencies, and insisting that kids would not, in fact, be harmed by gay marriage were tactics that didn't help. Instead, these approaches only served to sear the opposition's message (and the fear it inspired) deeper in people's minds. Yet the "Princess"-themed ads also couldn't be ignored. Left unanswered, the attack would stick.
Around the beginning of this year, after more than two years of study and testing, researchers working with the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way finally believed they had an answer. The best way to disarm the kid-themed attacks, they concluded, was to assuage the underlying fear parents had of losing control of their children's world, without directly addressing what could supposedly happen at school. The message was disarmingly simple: Children learn their values at home, from their parents.
"We've thought long and hard about it, and we know that someday allowing everyone the freedom to marry won't change our kids' values," says "Elizabeth," who's sitting at the dining-room table with her husband, "John," in an ad aired by Minnesotans United in late October. "Because they get those values from us," John says.
The campaigners hoped the "values" message would undercut the "Princess"-themed attack without drawing further attention to it. But it had never been tried before in the heat of a campaign, and its gentleness made a lot of gay-marriage advocates very nervous. "All along, there was a segment of our supporters in the gay and lesbian community who were frankly disappointed in our TV ads," Silk said. "They were convinced we were going to lose because we were not aggressively, in a tit-for-tat political way, tackling the other side's arguments. But that was intentional on our part. They did that in California, and they lost. We were not going to be baited into that by our opponents."
Another state operative put it to me this way: "Every day I was getting calls, wanting to know why we weren't calling out the bigots."
Black vs. Gay
The campaign for gay marriage faced its own unique challenge in Maryland: race. In campaigns past, reliably Democratic African-American voters had often broken with their liberal brethren when it came to same-sex marriage, a discrepancy usually attributed to the influence of black churches. It was also part of a deliberate strategy by gay-marriage opponents. In an internal memo unearthed in March as part of a court case, the National Organization for Marriage outlined a strategy "to drive a wedge between gays and blacks." This fissure was particularly ugly in California, where, in the aftermath of the Prop 8 vote, many gay activists and white liberals blamed African-American voters for their side's defeat.
In Maryland, blacks made up 28 percent of the electorate, the fourth-largest proportion of any state and the highest outside the Deep South. But Obama's repositioning on gay marriage, which was soon followed by a full-throated endorsement from the NAACP, sparked a dramatic shift of opinion in the black community. Polls showed support for same-sex marriage among black voters moving as much as 10 points virtually overnight, from the low- to mid-30s to the mid-40s. The same-sex marriage campaigners moved quickly to capitalize on this change with an aggressive effort of African-American outreach, especially in churches.
Maryland didn't wind up suffering much from Freedom to Marry's decision not to fully support its campaign. In a bit of intra-movement rivalry, the Human Rights Campaign, the well-established Washington, D.C.-based gay-rights clearinghouse, had adopted the state financially and organizationally when Freedom to Marry declined to commit. (The two groups publicly insisted they got along fine and simply had different objectives.) Toward the end of the campaign, the airwaves were so clogged with ads for and against a casino referendum that both sides of the gay-marriage fight were priced out of the advertising market. Maryland organizers also had the advantage of working in the most Democratic of the four states: Obama would wind up with 62 percent of the vote, compared to 56 percent in Maine and Washington and 53 percent in Minnesota. What Republicans there were in Maryland were often different than in other states -- government workers or D.C. political professionals with libertarian views. A former chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich worked on the campaign for marriage, as did a senior fellow for the Cato Institute.
By late October, a Washington Post poll was showing gay marriage polling at 52 percent in Maryland. If the referendum succeeded, Maryland would become the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to legalize gay marriage, and the old racial animosities might be put to rest. But it wasn't clear how lasting or real the "Obama effect" on black voters would prove to be. One national gay advocate not involved with Freedom to Marry or the Maryland campaign told me a few weeks before the election that her biggest fear was that the other three states would vote in favor of marriage but Maryland would not. Such a result would reinforce the damaging, hurtful storyline about blacks vs. gays -- and with it, the idea that the beneficiaries of the last generation's civil-rights battle were standing in the way of this one's.
Waiting for the Shoe to Drop
As the campaigns entered their final stretch in late October, the marriage campaigners waited for new opposition tactics they'd have to scramble to respond to -- and waited, and waited. But almost everything went almost exactly according to the same playbook that Schubert, who had been retained by the National Organization for Marriage to manage all four state ballot campaigns, had laid out back in 2009. "We kept waiting for them to zag, and they just kept zigging," Silk said.
The traditional-marriage campaigners aired nearly identical ads in all four states, in a couple of cases even labeling the state incorrectly when they posted the ad online. The school-based attacks arrived on schedule in late October. The gay marriage proponents were so well prepared that when the first one aired in Washington, they issued a rebuttal press release 12 minutes later, had a response ad featuring the "values" message online in half an hour, and were airing the response ad on television within 24 hours. Crucially, all the gay-marriage campaigns but Maryland's had sufficient funds to air response ads while simultaneously keeping their commitment-themed ads on as well, a "two-track strategy" aimed at never letting voters forget the positive message about love.
What changes the gay-marriage campaigners did detect in their opponents' strategy were minor. Rather than aim primarily at middle-class parents, Schubert's anti-gay-marriage commercials seemed to be placing more emphasis on blue-collar white men, tapping into their economic anxieties by playing up (largely bogus) stories about gay marriage's supposed economic consequences. In several states, for instance, his ads featured an innkeeper in Vermont who was sued after refusing to host a lesbian wedding. (Gay-marriage advocates said the lawsuit stemmed from the state's anti-discrimination law and had nothing to do with the legal status of marriage.) The same-sex marriage proponents responded by including more blue-collar messengers in their ads.
The opposition also seemed to be trying very hard to provoke confrontation. Anti-gay-marriage demonstrators with large signs went to the gayest neighborhoods in Seattle, apparently trying to draw some kind of response. On October 14, a gay-marriage supporter tore a sign off a woman's car, yelled at her, and shoved a bystander. The man was arrested; the gay-marriage campaign strongly condemned the attack; the opponents sought to play it up as proof they were being persecuted. As a tactic, the move seemed to the gay-marriage advocates to signal desperation and a lack of financial resources.
Two weeks before Election Day, Wolfson and Solomon, Freedom to Marry's campaign director, sent a confidential memo to top donors. "A week ago, we hosted a series of National Engagement Parties around the country, bringing in an additional $500K for the ballot fights," it reported. Ken Mehlman -- George W. Bush's former campaign manager and a major fundraiser and strategist for gay marriage since coming out in The Atlantic in 2010 -- had hosted the biggest one in New York, the memo reported, raising $300,000. Freedom to Marry, the memo reported, was spending nearly $7 million on the ballot fights, far outpacing the $3 million goal the organization had set at the beginning of the year, and more than the opponents appeared to have raised in all four states combined.
At this late stage, the four campaigns were sharing an opposition-research firm and holding biweekly conference calls to strategize around common problems. In Maine, field staffers reported in-depth conversations with 165,000 individual voters. In Minnesota, they'd been airing TV ads nonstop since August. In Washington, the biggest challenge was convincing voters that domestic partnership wasn't sufficient. In Maryland, radio ads were going up featuring former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and "invoking the president's explanation of how he opened his heart to the freedom to marry," the memo reported.
For all the confidence expressed in the memo, nervousness reigned behind the scenes. Solomon, a canny operative who hates to lose, is also a chronic worrier; the years he spent defending gay marriage politically in Massachusetts, a long fight that pitted him against an ambitious governor named Mitt Romney, were so stressful they left him with permanent nerve damage.
The day before the election, I emailed Solomon to ask how he was feeling. He wrote back:
Nervous....we've done incredible work in these campaigns (I'm in Portland, Maine right now), but it's hard to know what from our opponents sticks. Referenda are so different from court rooms or even legislatures, where the facts are presented and debated, dispassionately, under oath. In ballot campaigns, there is no restriction on misinformation and outright lies from our opposition. We've been extraordinarily well-prepared, we've raised the $$ and far outraised our opponents, we've gotten out our affirmative stories, even as we respond to our opponents, and we have in place the most powerful and targeted GOTV efforts our movement has ever known. But it's still nerve-wracking to have our fundamental rights and freedoms decided by voters at the ballot box.
I later learned another reason for Solomon's late-stage agitation: In the final days, some of the states' tracking polls had suddenly and unexpectedly swooned. Support in Maine dipped from the high 50s to 53 percent; Washington went from consistently polling in the low 50s to hovering, gut-wrenchingly, between 49 and 51 percent. And those were supposed to be the two strongest states. Maryland and Minnesota were holding steady, but only around 51-52 percent -- dangerous territory for an issue that had repeatedly gotten clobbered in the past after going into Election Day with wide polling leads.
Zepatos, the messaging guru, spent the days leading up to the election touring Minnesota in an RV. In the tiny town of Mountain Iron, an hour north of Duluth, she met a group of white-haired ladies whose quilting club convened at the Lutheran church on Sunday afternoons. The women told Zepatos they spent every Sunday discussing how to get their friends and neighbors to come around and vote "no" on the amendment to ban gay marriage. There's something happening here, she thought. But it occurred to her that she and her colleagues were taking a huge gamble on a strategy that had never been tried before and still might fail spectacularly.
"You sort of start cutting a trail that you think is leading in the right direction," she told me. "You've got a compass point ahead of you, you think you're going east or whatever, and you keep on it based on your reading of your compass. But until you reach that destination, it's always a question. Did I miss something? Is this really the right way?"
The Moment of Truth
When you work on a political campaign, there is never enough to do on Election Day. The get-out-the-vote operation is churning, reports are coming in from polling places, yet you are basically helpless as you wait for the outcome.
In Portland, Maine, Solomon edited two Freedom to Marry press releases for each state -- one for a loss, one for a win. As the returns began to come in, he huddled in the campaign's war room upstairs at the Portland Holiday Inn with the state's campaign manager, Matt McTighe, an old friend he'd worked with at MassEquality in Boston. The men wore orange laminated all-access passes around their necks as they parsed the incoming numbers, comparing each town's results to how it had performed in 2009.
In nearly every case, the numbers were coming in better than 2009. Even in the parts of the state where they expected to do worst, their margins were better than before, often by 6 to 8 points. They were even winning three counties -- Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo -- they'd previously lost. Around 11 p.m., McTighe was doing a radio interview and couldn't hold back any longer. "At this point, it's a question of when, not if, we call the race," he told the host, the gay writer and activist Michelangelo Signorile.
News organizations still hadn't called it, but McTighe was sure. He walked down to the hotel ballroom, where 2,000 activists and field organizers had gathered, and up to the podium. The atmosphere was electric: The crowd could tell he wasn't coming in to tell them they'd lost.
"It has been a long time coming," McTighe said, his voice shaking. "Because of the work of everyone in this room, and so many staff and volunteers and supporters all over the country, we have finally won the freedom to marry."
The rest of McTighe's words were drowned out by screaming, ecstatic cheers. The activists flooded the stage, whooping and hugging. Then, in one attendee's video of the event, the camera panned to a bearded man in a red sweater, who was crying uncontrollably. His name was Mick; he was straight. On behalf of his lesbian sister, he had devoted hundreds of hours to canvassing for gay marriage.
Wolfson was in his New York apartment as the results came in; anticipating a long night, he preferred to spend it at home. Every time gay rights scored a win, Wolfson kissed his husband, a molecular biologist named Cheng He whom he married a year ago. The wins that night weren't just for marriage, as America also elected its first gay U.S. senator and record numbers of gay lawmakers up and down the ballot. "It was the first election night I had a husband to kiss," Wolfson told me later.
Maine was the first state to be called, then Maryland shortly after midnight. Minnesota, decided by the narrowest margin of the four, and Washington, which conducts elections exclusively by mail, would not be official until the wee hours of the morning. But in all four cases, the gay-marriage proponents could tell which way things were going from the early returns. Their goal had been to win a single state and erase their opponents' perfect record; instead, they'd gone undefeated. Hoping for a tipping point, they'd accomplished a sea change.
The Opposition Regroups
After the election, Schubert posted a statement on his firm's website. "I firmly reject the spin surely to come that this result signals a fundamental shift in American opinion in support of gay marriage," he wrote. "It means that we very narrowly lost four difficult contests in four very deep blue states after being badly outspent."
I reached Schubert, who lives in Northern California, by phone a few days later. He was headed off on vacation with his family, he said, and would not be reachable for a while. "It was just a bad dream, wasn't it?" he said with a rueful laugh. "I'm just hoping to wake up."
Schubert gave his opponents credit for running smart campaigns. As the months went on, he said, he was astonished by the variety of messages the gay-marriage advocates rolled out to target different groups. "In every state, they ran ads aimed at Republicans," he said. "They were different ads in different places, but the gist of all of the ads was 'We're Republicans, we've changed our minds, everybody should support liberty and freedom, gay marriage isn't going to bother us.' It wasn't overwhelmingly successful by any stretch of the imagination, but they peeled away a couple of points of our support among Republicans."
In Minnesota, 20 percent of Mitt Romney's supporters voted against the gay-marriage ban; in Maryland, 25 percent of Republicans voted to legalize gay marriage.
"Similarly, they ran ads aimed at religious voters, with pastors making the argument about the Golden Rule," Schubert continued. "Ethnic voters are still strong supporters of traditional marriage, but they got enough here and there to make a difference in this very close election. That was very smart of them to do, and we didn't have the money to counter them. I didn't have the money to run separate ads aimed at Democrats, Republicans, and independents. I was effectively defenseless to these new attacks."
Schubert and his allies were outspent several times over -- in the final tally across all four states, the pro-gay-marriage campaigns spent nearly $42 million versus about $11 million on Schubert's side. To Schubert, the lopsided finances showed that his losses had more to do with money than public sentiment. But to gay-marriage backers, they were proof of the draining enthusiasm for banning gay marriage. "They are running out of money to fight this," said Margaret Hoover, a Republican pundit, great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover, and vocal gay-marriage advocate. (One of her proudest moments in public life was when, a few years ago, the National Organization for Marriage sent a fundraising letter to its supporters headlined, "Stop the Margaret Hoover Republicans!") "They are running out of support," she said. "On the financial and grassroots side, there isn't the support to fight this anymore."
But Schubert predicted that gay-marriage advocates would be victims of their own success. "Our opponents told the voters, 'No consequences! Nothing to fear!' Of course, that's not true," he said. "A raft of problems will appear that we'll be able to point to. The truth of the matter is that same-sex marriage creates a host of conflicts with people who disagree with it. That's just a fact. You will start to see wedding photographers sued and fined, innkeepers put out of business, churches sued, small businesses sued. Then people will say, 'Whoa, I didn't think this was going to happen.'"
I asked if that meant seeking more ballot initiatives, perhaps even going back to voters in the same states that voted this year. "We'll decide based on polling whether there's a critical mass to revisit the issue," Schubert said.
Above all, Schubert rejected the idea that a tide had turned in America. "I'm disappointed at the outcome, but not defeated. I don't think the cause is defeated. We'll rally and continue to fight," he said. "We believe we're fighting for a true and just cause -- that marriage is the union of a man and a woman for good reason and that that does serve society."
Deep down, Schubert said, this is something most Americans still believe. "I don't think," he said, "there's any reason to conclude the country has changed."
In the weeks since Election Day, the same-sex marriage campaigners have been conducting follow-up research, debriefing, and planning their next steps. A Maine statewide poll the group conducted post-election attempted to parse what worked and what didn't. Voters were asked, regardless of how they voted, which source of information was most important i