Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Press Releases: Campaign crash

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The single biggest factor contributing to the repeal of same-sex marriage in Maine was how pro-marriage forces used — or failed to use — the media to their advantage. The No On 1 campaign was experienced — the same groups, led mostly by the same people, won the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in 2005. It was well funded, as it was four years ago. And again it was defending an existing law enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But as the campaign to save same-sex marriage from a California-style repeal wore on, it became more diffuse, less focused, and, ultimately, too negative to win.

At the beginning, the No On 1 message was clear and defined: this was about love, family, fairness, and equality.

But while that message stayed constant among the volunteers doing the calling and street work, the campaign's official statements and advertising strayed very far, giving the campaign a public persona that was not loving, warm, or open — but rather, at times, defensive, dismissive, and annoyed.

The Yes On 1 campaign claimed that "homosexual marriage will be taught in Maine schools" (which was loose code for "your kids will be taught gay sex"). But No On 1 did not produce any of the countless Maine teachers who would have said publicly that no matter the outcome of the election, they would always teach what they had always taught: that all students, and all families, have value, and that all people deserve love and understanding, no matter how different they are from us.

Rather, No On 1 got defensive and expressed "outrage" at the ridiculous claims, which — as polls showed — the public wasn't buying. No On 1 even aired TV ads — by far its most expensive and widest-reaching resource — attacking the Yes On 1 message and leadership. (Beyond confusing the point, it violated Rule 1 of campaigning: "If you're talking about them, you're losing.")

And after those ads started airing, the poll results shifted. After No On 1 validated those utterly false claims by repeating them, the fear-of-education message began to take hold. (That confirms Rule 2 of campaigning: "Message repetition is vital. It doesn't matter by whom.")

Some positive, hopeful, family-oriented ads from No On 1 also aired sporadically, embodying the best spirit of the No campaign — declaring that Maine is and should remain a tolerant, loving place where people do not discriminate. But the lack of focus on this core message meant it took time to sink into the public mind.

When it did, it was too late. With less than a week to go, the Yes On 1 campaign showed its first sign of weakness, even backpedaling. New ads promoted the state's domestic-partner registry (creation of which the Catholic Church, a Yes On 1 backer, had strenuously opposed), saying people could support "traditional marriage" and still protect people's civil rights. Those were admissions that the equality message was finally taking effect.

Imagine if the No campaign had spent all its money and time standing on principle, moving on offense: "Some people want to overturn a law that our Legislature passed and our governor signed. That law is an important one granting vital civil rights to a minority population who have been discriminated against for too long."

Even ads asking "What minority are you?" would have been amazing: "How would you feel if someone tried to deny you the right to marry, just because you're left-handed (or blue-eyed, or blond-haired)? You'd vote No too."

But ultimately, the No campaign was too slow, Yes didn't have to respond until too late, and the No campaign never unleashed the most devastating counterattack they had available: the "separate is not equal" message that very well could have carried the day in the state that Won't Discriminate.