Political Campaigning and the Rhetoric of Marriage:
Proposition 8, Schubert & Flint, and the Religious Majority
California has long been considered a liberal state on most issues. People from other states often refer to California as “the land of fruits and nuts” and they aren’t talking about our long history of bountiful agricultural production. No, our great state is known as the land of crazy, tree-hugging, tofu-eating, free-loving people. In the election of November, 2008, our reputation worked against us when many free thinking Californians thought that the campaign waged against gay marriage didn‘t stand a chance at success, and so they did not come out strongly against it. Personally, I too thought that for sure that a ballot measure that outlawed gay marriage would be voted down because the right to marry is, fundamentally, an issue of civil rights and of religious freedom. I knew that Californians would be true to their liberal hippie heritage by not passing Proposition 8. I, along with many other liberals, would be wrong.
Before starting my research I hadn’t realized that a similar proposition outlawing gay marriage had passed in November 2002. However, the California Supreme Court ruled that “same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry” (Liptak 1). According to Supreme Court Justice George,
“In view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same sex couples as well as to opposite sex couples” (Liptak 1).
Overturning Proposition 22 opened the door for same-sex marriage in California and couples flocked to solidify their relationships with a legally recognized marriage. I, with my mother, went to the San Francisco Court House to join the crowd congratulating couples as they left the building because we felt that even though no one we personally knew was directly affected, it showed that our society was maturing and reaching a new era of freedom and acceptance. That day, the cheers of supporters drowned out the negative hateful shouting from the anti-gay marriage group. Overturning Proposition 22 was a great success for gay marriage but the euphoria was short-lived as a new measure was added to the 2008 ballot that would again subject same-sex marriage to public opinion.
The Battle Begins
In the beginning of the campaign, a poll conducted by the Field Institute showed that Proposition 8 was failing with 55% of polled voters against the proposition and only 38% in favor (Flint 1), meaning Californians, for the most part, were in favor of same-sex marriage. This was a serious problem for the “Yes on 8” campaign, which then looked for a public affairs firm to shore up support for their measure. The “Yes on 8” campaign selected the Public Affairs firm of Schubert and Flint to represent them on the political stage and to mastermind their campaign strategy.
This campaign became a war of rhetoric and the most critical element of the battle was controlling the terms of the debate. Starting with the very language of the proposition, the “Yes on 8” campaign defined the terms of the debate. According to the protect marriage.com website, the proposition “has the same fourteen words that were previously approved in 2002 by over 61% of California voters. ‘Only Marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California’”(protectmarriage.com). The proposition was written so that it wasn’t about same-sex couples at first reading. According to the website, the proposition was labeled the “Marriage Protection Act.” Had it been labeled the “Anti-same-Sex Marriage Act” or the “Suppression of Gay Rights Act” it would have been perceived in an entirely different way by the voting public because Californians do not like to enact any legislation that takes away rights or liberties, or at least we didn’t used too. Starting with the writing of the initial proposition and the subsequent naming of it as “the Marriage Protection Act,” the “Yes on 8” group was able to control the terms that would define the Proposition 8 debate.
Schubert and Flint wrote in an article that they made a strategic decision to run the campaign like a “No” campaign by raising doubts and pointing to potential problems”(Flint 2). They knew that they couldn’t win by taking a defensive stance; they had to steadily and strategically attack. The opposition, Equality California operating as part of the “No on 8” team, won a small skirmish in this war of words when they were able to get the final ballot title changed from “Limit on Marriage Constitutional Amendment,” to “Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry”(McDowell 3). The first title did not represent the full societal implications of the measure. Similarly, Equality California was able also to get the ballot summary changed to read “changes the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California”(McDowell 3). These were solid wins over the “Yes” campaign, but they were too late; the “Yes” team had already defined the proposition in the public arena.
Once the campaign began, the “Yes on 8” group followed the award winning strategy of Schubert and Flint. According to an article titled, “Passing Prop 8: Smart Timing and Messaging Convinced California Voters to Support Traditional Marriage” by Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint, the most important thing that they (the Yes on 8 Campaign) needed to control was “the terms” (Flint 1). They knew that they had to make the campaign not only about protecting marriage but also about the consequences if the proposition failed. This scare tactic worked as the basis for most of their campaign as they sought to convince voters that same-sex marriage was not “live and let live” but that there were “broader implications”(Flint 1). They struck home for thousands of California voters when they delivered the message that same-sex marriage would result in restricting religious freedom and that our young children would be taught same-sex marriage in school. Their advertising campaign featured wholesome clean-cut, all American images like multi-ethnic couples sometimes in wedding finery, religious symbols like a pair of wedding rings, and families with impressionable young children. The following symbol became their beacon:
The “Yes on 8” family came to represent how the campaign would define a traditional family. This icon became a highly recognizable image associated with the campaign that was put onto most of their propaganda like yard signs and bumper stickers.
During this early staging period, Schubert and Flint worked hard to organize their campaign volunteers and set them on a path of unity that they felt would lead to success. They looked to the religious organizations of California for their ground crew that was responsible for doing most of the campaigning. Schubert and Flint were able to work closely with religious leaders to develop mini campaign centers at some churches and the “Yes on 8” website was designed with religious organizations in mind. On the site one could find tools such as flyers for distribution, arguments for the proposition, instructions on how to conduct an offering–just to name a few. One of my favorite propaganda items was a postcard to be passed out with Halloween candy. It read
“Don’t be “tricked” into
Without Proposition 8, school children as young as 5 will be
taught that same-sex marriage is the same as traditional marriage.
Do you want your tax dollars to be used in the classroom to
undermine the values you teach your children? Don’t be
“tricked” by opposition to Proposition 8.
Vote YES on Proposition 8 on Tuesday, November 4
to protect traditional marriage!
Paid for by Yes on Proposition 8 ID # 1309338(Protect Marriage.com)
The postcard also featured small orange Jack-0-Lanterns. Image, your child walking away from your neighbors porch with political propaganda in their plastic pumpkin. In most types of advertising, advertising directed towards children is taboo at best. Their materials are also available in over 40 different languages. I also found it interesting that the “No on 8” campaign website has been deactivated but protectmarriage.com is still going strong. Along with defining the terms, Schubert and Flint felt that this massive volunteer movement was key to their success. They were able to
“conduct statewide Voter Id canvasses of every voter; to distribute 1.25 million yard signs and an equal number of bumper stickers; to have our volunteers re-contact every undecided, soft yes and soft no voter; and to have 100,000 volunteers, 5 per precinct, working on election day to make sure that every identified Yes on 8 Voter would vote“(Flint 2).
In the beginning, these goals may have seemed ambitious but Schubert and Flint were able to achieve these and more with the help of their massive volunteer effort that started in the churches. The sheer number of yard signs and bumper stickers that were visible in communities across California was highly visible evidence of the numbers of their volunteer effort. They put out the word to their people that they wanted the image of the “Yes on 8” voter, campaigner, and message to be “calm and low-key” (Flint 1) and very much the average wholesome Californian. The immense volunteer effort was able to get their message out into their precincts because Flint and Schubert also wanted the “yes” voters to know that they were in good company and that it was ok to be public about their beliefs (Flint 2.)
Schubert and Flint also utilized the Internet in new ways. Their website allowed people to come in direct contact with the campaign station in their areas and made materials easily accessible. As the voting day approached, they spent “close to half a million dollars” on a “Google surge” that meant every time a person from California went online to a page with advertising controlled by Google, they saw a “Yes on 8” advertisement. That alone is an impressive feat.
Selling an Un-Popular Proposition
Although numerous ads were run by both sides of the debate, some were key turning points in the campaign. The first major point of the “Yes” campaign was an ad featuring a strong supporter of the “No” campaign, mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. Schubert and Flint aired the ad featuring a clip from a press conference where Mayor Newsom was shouting, rather wildly, that “this doors wide open now. It’s gonna happen–whether you like it or not” (Flint 3). We already knew from the frenzied campaign speech of Howard Dean and his subsequent fall in popularity that voters don’t like crazed, albeit passionate, people. While his show of enthusiasm was positive and empowering for the “No” side, it became the rallying cry for the opposition as further evidence that same sex marriage supporters were not rational, calm people and that they were trying to force their views on California’s faith based groups. Schubert and Flint wrote in their article that they “invested heavily in airing this ad on television and a companion radio ad” (Flint 3). They believed that this ad was responsible for “solidifying and exciting” their base and “captured voters attention statewide” (Flint 3). After a week of airing this ad, the “Yes” campaign clawed its way to the front of the voter polls. This would not be the only instance where the “No” campaign would sabotage itself with good intentions.
The next point made in the “Yes” campaign was that same-sex marriage would have an impact on our children’s education. Schubert and Flint released an ad of a young Hispanic- looking little girl who came running into a room with a fable book shouting “Mommie, Mommie, when I grow up I want to marry a princess!” The message was that our children would be learning about same-sex marriage in schools as part of the curriculum. As a former teacher of children, I knew that this was false and that schools tend to avoid teaching almost anything controversial. This ad aired frequently, and it took some time for the “No” group to get their rebuttal out there. However, finally they were able to produce an ad featuring the California Superintendent of Schools, Jack O’Connell, calmly attesting to the fact that the other ad was false and that our curriculum doesn’t require teaching marriage, but it was not as dramatic nor as memorable as the “Yes” ad.
The O’Connell ad was a good advertisement that used a strong respected figure of our government to explain that the other ad was simply not true, but by then the damage was done. Then in what Schubert and Flint called “the most ill-considered publicity stunt ever,” a second grade class surprised their lesbian teacher at her marriage at City Hall with an entourage of press in tow. The “Yes” campaign was able to use this footage as a rebuttal against the “No” ad featuring the Superintendent. It was their “See? We told you this would happen” advertisement (Flint 4). The “Yes” people were on the “statewide news within 24 hours of the O’Connell ad” showing the “bewildered six-year-olds at a lesbian wedding” (Flint 4). Previous ads showed instances out of state where children came to possess such things as tales about non-traditional families but footage of the school children in San Francisco showed directly how children in California were being impacted and would be impacted in the future. It didn’t matter anymore that same-sex marriage wasn’t part of the curriculum. Concerned parents saw the image of the children at city hall as proof that schools would teach same-sex marriage. Once again, Schubert and Flint were able to control the terms of the debate as the “No” campaign conceded defeat on the education front and pulled their strongest ad, the ad by Jack O’Connell.
Prop 8 and Religious Freedom
In the debate on same sex marriage, religion is relied upon heavily in forming the opposition’s arguments. In the “Yes” campaign, they too used religion, not only as a means of fundraising and staffing, but also as part of the foundation for their argument. In naming their website protectmarriage.com, they established that they felt that same-sex marriage threatened their core system of values that stated that marriage is between a man and a woman. This idea evolved into the principle that allowing same-sex couples to participate in religious marriage would infringe on the rights of heterosexual couples’ religious freedom. I would argue that religious freedom cannot be infringed upon by allowing a group to participate. Infringement happens only when a group is kept from participating and practicing the religion of their choice. There are several religious groups that support same-sex marriage and in a statement released by a group of Episcopal Bishops against Proposition 8
“We do not believe that marriage of heterosexuals is threatened by same-sex marriage. Rather, the Christian values of monogamy, commitment, love, mutual respect and witness of monogamy are enhanced for all by providing this right to gay and straight alike. Society is strengthened when two people who love each other choose to enter into marriage, engaged in a lifetime of disciplined relationship building that serves as a witness to the importance of love and commitment”(Kawamoto 1).
This rebuttal to their argument comes from within the faith community and as such is more convincing than anything outsiders would argue.
Those that choose to use the Bible as a means of supporting the anti-same sex argument cite passages where it is forbidden for persons of the same-sex to couple. For this argument, the opposition often ridicules other passages in the same section that have other seemingly absurd rules to follow. The mistake in the argument is assuming that the religious followers will agree that the other rules are absurd and even if they do agree, they will be insulted and put on the defensive at having their belief system mocked. The statement by the Bishops is proof to me that there are ways of supporting a traditional belief system and still supporting religious freedom because it is only infringement of a freedom if one is kept from doing something.
Many people are emotionally invested in the issue of same-sex marriage. As a result, they also chose to be fiscally invested. At the time of voting, over 60 million dollars had been accumulated and spent on the proposition “Yes” and “No” campaigns total. This total set a new record for spending on a social ballot initiative(AP 1). According to research by the Associated Press, previous election initiative in other states only reached around 33 million dollars total and donators on both sides of the issue came from across the nation because they saw California as ground zero for same-sex marriage or as Knights of Columbus spokesman Patrick Korten said, “California is the thousand pound Gorilla when it comes to laws of this sort” (AP 1). Internationally donors came from countries like Italy, Great Britain, Taiwan, and Thailand, most of whom donated to the “No” campaign (AP 2). Only 19% of the “Yes” campaign money came from outside the state as opposed to 33 % of the “No” campaign money (AP 2). The California Teachers Association donated 1.3 million dollars to the “No” campaign in keeping with its history of supporting civil liberties (AP 3).
In the news, various religious groups came under fire for supporting the “Yes” campaign. The Mormon Church of Ladder Day Saints and its members were responsible for 40% of the first wave of 22 million dollars of campaign money (Flint 3). The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, was responsible for donating 1.4 million dollars (AP 2). When it came down to money, the “No” campaign had more of it with their support coming from Hollywood elite like Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg, wealthy businesses like Geocities, and savvy businessmen like WordPerfect software founder Bruce Bastian, but in the end it was the “Yes” campaigns spending plan that won out. Having the money was not as important as having a strategic and unified plan for spending it.
According to a report that analyzed why the “No” campaign failed timing was also a critical element with the money raised. The “Yes” campaign was able to raise large sums of money early in the election. The “No” campaign started off slowly because they underestimated their opposition. The report also commented that the “No” campaign also had a problem of big donators not wanting to contribute until they were able to “see a reasonable chance at success” (Woodward 18).
Why the “No” Campaign Failed
In the beginning, the “No” campaign had the support of Californians, masses of money, and every opportunity to convince California that they were right. They started ahead of their opponents but were not aggressive in delivering their message until it was too late. By enlisting volunteers through religious groups, the “Yes” campaign found a cohort of people that were passionate about their beliefs but easily controllable. The “No” campaign had volunteers that were equally passionate but significantly less controllable. They were not indoctrinated to following the leadership of others as many Church goers are; also, liberals have a history of being uncontrollable and unpredictable. As such, the “No” campaign was unable to present the united front and united message that the “Yes” campaign did. “Yes” campaigners had easier access to materials through their churches, materials that were published in over 40 different languages and meetings every Sunday to help shore up their resolve (through sermons). The sheer numbers of the “Yes” army were astounding for a proposition campaign. For example, at the first “Yes” rally walk they were optimistic in expecting 20,000 supporters to participate. They ended up with over 33,000 (Flint 2).
While the “Yes” campaign was often reaching out to its faithful in a familiar and comfortable setting, their churches, the “No” campaign failed to reach out to people of faith in a positive way. Many ads featured condescending dialogue that implied that elements of faith-based thinking were stupid or just plain wrong. In one online ad producer Marc Shaiman and a star-studded cast put on a skit at Sacramento Community College that included offensive points such as religion is hypocritical, it is driven by greed, and its people are uptight, stuffy conservatives that spew hate. As if that weren’t offensive enough, comedian Jack Black portrayed a slightly paunchy and possibly slightly intoxicated Jesus Christ gorging himself on chips. At the website funnyordie.com, the musical ad has had 4,119,561 views. Personally, I found the ad to be quite hilarious; however, I am already a supporter of the “No” campaign. I should not be their target audience. While many other ads were not as blatantly offensive as this one, they were, for the most part, directed at the wrong group of people. I believe this to have been a result of inadequate leadership, obstinate independence of liberals, and a severe underestimation of the power of faith-based communities. I think that it was definitively proven in this campaign that being right doesn’t always matter in politics. What matters is how the truth is perceived and delivered to the voting masses.
Another small item that I think was a part of the failure was the similarity in campaign signs. The “No” group patterned their icon after the “Yes on 8” icon seen above. It featured a family with same-sex parents and “No” instead of “Yes” all printed in a similar color scheme. Their message was out there, not in the numbers of the “Yes” but it was out there; however, due to the similarities in posters at a glance, it was all too easy to mistake the message of the poster. Their graphic is no longer available as their website has shut down. Rather than set themselves apart to deliver their message clearly, they added more confusion to an already slightly confused public.
An Award Winning Strategy
The excellence and dynamism of Schubert and Flint are another reason why the proposition was passed. The firm received 18 Pollie Awards which are given by the American Association of Political Consultants. The most prestigious award received was “Public Affairs Team of the Year” for their work on the “Yes on 8” campaign. They also received awards for:
Best Overall TV/Radio Campaign
Direct Mail Overall Campaign
Internet New Technology Campaign
Online Marketing Campaign
Persuasion Online Advertising
Use of Email, New Technology, and Search Engine
Web Site for a ballot measure
All of these aspects of their campaign were nationally recognized for excellence. Their strategy was cutting edge, and it got the job done in a way that got Schubert and Flint national recognition.
The “No on 8” campaign as well as the “Republicans against 8, a group organized by the “Log Cabin Republicans” whose member include our Governor Schwarzenegger, also won a few awards, but nothing in comparison to the 18 total won by the Schubert and Flint campaign. Simply put, “Yes on 8” had more cohesive leadership, better ads, better response times, and higher visibility that, in combination, resulted in a superior campaign and a 52% vote in their favor.
Is it finally over?
In recent weeks, the Proposition 8 campaign has reclaimed the top spot in the nation’s news. Despite previously overturning a similar ballot measure, the California Supreme court decided to uphold the new proposition as constitutional. Proposition 22 was overturned as unconstitutional in the words of “Chief Justice George on the grounds that
“Whether or not the name “marriage,” in the abstract, is considered a core element of the state constitutional right to marry, one of the core elements of this fundamental right is the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other officially recognized family relationships. (In Re Marriage Cases 81 ).
Our society is very label conscious, and the word “marriage” has come to represent a stable family. As such, it demeans the family values of groups that can’t legally use the label. In his summation Chief Justice George also stated that,
“It is true, of course, that as an historical matter in this state marriage always has been limited to a union between a man and a woman. Tradition alone, however, generally has not been viewed as a sufficient justification for perpetuating, without examination, the restriction or denial of a fundamental constitutional right”(In Re Marriage Cases 65).
In this case the argument was that just because it had always been so did not make it right and that a marriage, more than a domestic partnership, represented a family unit in society. In the summations, the point was also made that this did not mean that religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage would have to perform marriages for same-sex couples, a point touted often by the “Yes on 8” groups(In Re Marriage Cases).
I think that many supporters of same-sex marriage were of the opinion that the proposition would be overturned again. They were wrong. Again it came down to an issue of language and word choice. According to the summations made in the argument, the purpose of the State Supreme Court is to uphold the constitutional amendment process. According to the summation written by Justice Werdegar, the proposition
“does not otherwise affect the states obligation to enforce the equal protection clause by protecting the ‘fundamental right…of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other official recognized family relationships.’ For the state to meet its obligations under the equal protection clause will now be more difficult, but the obligation remains.”(In The Supreme Court of California 10/150).
This statement concluded a summation full of contradictions. This statement alone used language from the previous argument that ended in a different judgment. In the same summation, Justice Werdegar also wrote that “Proposition 8 entirely undermines the counter-majoritarian nature of the equal protection clause and usurps the judiciary’s special constitutional role as protector of minority rights”(In The Supreme Court of California 10/150). How then could they pass this judgment? It came down to a point of procedure, and the job of the court is to uphold the amendments passed my majority vote.
In the 6-1 vote there was one voice of consistent reasoning. Justice Moreno was the only voice of opposition. He wrote that “The majority’s holding is not just a defeat for same sex couples, but for any minority group that seeks the protection of the equal protection clause of the constitution”(In The Supreme Court of California 10/150).
Many members of the Gay and Lesbian community have posted their feelings of frustration on online blogs and posts. The general idea behind their comments is that they didn’t feel that it necessary to crusade actively early in the campaign. I was not directly affected by this issue as I am neither devoutly religious or a lesbian. However, as a member of this society, I was very interested in how the political agenda of one group could become the agenda of the masses through a very strategic political campaign that resulted in limiting the liberty of ordinary people who also just happen to be gay. This campaign has changed or perhaps at least challenged the traditional view of Californians. For many sleeping liberals, it has served as a wake-up call to action. We cannot rest on our past human rights and civil liberties achievements. All are not yet equal.
The Protect Marriage movement is still going strong with an active website and an ongoing campaign while the supporters of same-sex marriage, like Equality California, are having to regroup and come up with a new action plan for the future because until same-sex couples are afforded the same rights as other couples, they will never be equal because, in words from the historic Brown v. the Board of Education judgment, “separate is never equal,” even when the divisive factor is a definition, a word, a symbol. As the crusaders for same-sex marriage set out on the next step of their epic struggle for equality they need to keep in mind that
“the focus moving forward should not be on how far you fell short but on how close you came to success. In order to cross the finish line you will need to marry the best knowledge from within the LGBT community with the best professionals and the best modern campaign techniques with grassroots momentum and the passion of your larger coalition”(Woodward 30).
In other words, look to the “Yes on 8” campaign for inspiration and direction on how to run a successful campaign.
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