On October 28, as Democrats scrambled volunteers to Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, Philip Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, was so confident of victory that he wasn't even in the state. Burress had championed Issue One, the anti–gay-marriage amendment, and had secured a place for it on the ballot just as the legal time limit for ballot initiatives was about to close in late September. But his campaign was rolling along so nicely in the days leading up to the election that Burress left for Tennessee, where he spoke to pastors about his presumptive win. “I vote values,” he said that day, well before that word took on the weight it would in the weeks to come.
The 11 anti–gay-marriage ballot initiatives are playing a starring role in the Democratic hunt to understand how the party missed four-fifths of the 22 percent of Americans who claimed “moral values” as their top election priority. “This has been a galvanizing issue,' says Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for James Dobson's far-right Focus on the Family. “It was the homosexual activists who elected [George W.] Bush. … They have infuriated the people.”
Some Democrats, it seems, might agree. The day after the election, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein told a San Francisco conference that gay marriage had come “too fast, too soon, too much,” implying that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision and San Francisco's mayor had played some role in John Kerry's defeat. A Kerry campaign leak revealed that Bill Clinton, from his hospital bed, had advised the candidate to support the amendments.
But the problem went far beyond what position Democrats took on the amendments. It was that they failed to discuss the rights of gay men and lesbians before the issue was co-opted by the right, that they did not anticipate the issue's key role in the presidential campaign, that they did not aggressively challenge these initiatives before they landed on ballots, and that they did not set up effective and well-funded education campaigns. But most of all, it was that they failed to frame gay marriage in a way that uncertain Americans voters could support it: that discrimination -- no matter who it is against -- is immoral, unconstitutional, and, most of all, un-American. Had they done so, there's evidence that the party could have countered the religious concerns about gay marriage by bringing out a significant anti-discrimination vote, especially from moderates. And, in the process, they might have been able to tar the GOP as the party of bias, not values.
The first thing Democrats might have done to win the battle over gay rights is to fight state by state to keep the measures off the ballot. It seems self-evident now, but fear of alienating socially conservative Dems kept the party mum. In the trenches, activists felt abandoned. “When we were trying to keep this off the ballot, we were given everything short of … help,” says Alan Melamed, who chaired Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, a group that fought the Buckeye State's anti–gay-marriage amendment. A frustrated Melamed laments that the party wanted to “keep [its] hands off” the issue.
Melamed says he spoke to volunteer lawyers connected to the Democratic Party, but vague promises for help with media buys and door-to-door canvassing on the issue never materialized. “We made requests and never got affirmative responses,” he remembers. “Shoot, if they had given us $2 million we [could have] hammered it home, particularly when we were trying to keep it off the ballot.” As for Melamed's direct dealings with the Democratic Party, he says, “I could never even get to a decision-maker.”
The far right, by contrast, had the explicit support of the Republican Party. As Salon reported in October, the Republican National Committee blanketed Ohio with direct mail that screamed “Traditional Values Are Under Attack From the Radical Left,” and urged that “one vote” could “protect marriage.” Bush himself announced in a July radio address that the Massachusetts decision had sent a “message to the next generation that marriage has no enduring meaning.” And Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, made the 11 marriage amendments a cornerstone of his get-out-the-evangelical-vote campaign, enlisting the help of prominent Republicans and national Christian organizations. “I've gone and given speeches in a lot of states to try and increase energy level and enthusiasm,” explained Gary Bauer, head of the right-wing nonprofit American Values, on election day. “I do a daily e-mail that goes to 100,000 activists around the country. We have promoted these state initiatives; we have held rallies in a number of states -- one in Tupelo, Mississippi, with 15,000 people, one in Raleigh, North Carolina, with 14,000.”
This support from Washington translated into some extraordinarily aggressive efforts in states voting on gay-marriage amendments. In Oregon, the state that was crowned “most likely to defeat its amendment” because it had successfully fought off anti-gay ballot initiatives in the past, support for the measure came in ugly forms. Oregon's defense-of-marriage coalition sent out direct mail and called voters claiming that “gay sex would be taught in schools and a ‘gay lifestyle' would be taught to kindergartners,” according to Rebekah Kassell, communications director for Basic Rights Oregon, a gay-rights group. Kassell says “push-poll” calls claimed “voting ‘no' would lead to same-sex marriages, which would lead to abortion,” and that “30 years of social-science research showed kids needed a mother and father or would turn to crime, drug abuse, suicide, violence, dropping out of school, and teen pregnancy.” With so much support for the amendments, the opposition was barely heard. “It became like a tree falling in the woods,” Melamed sighs.
The Democrats could also have worked harder to reframe the question in ways that would be palatable to the middle-of-the road voter. “Same-sex marriage,” explains William Lunch, a professor at Oregon State University, speaking the week before the election, could have had “the effect of highlighting in minds of suburban voters the idea that the Republican Party is the party of intolerance.” Even Bush recognized this risk: On October 26, he told Charlie Gibson on ABC's Good Morning America that he supported civil unions. “You have to ask the question, ‘Why is Bush making more visible his support for civil unions?'” says Lunch. “It was done … to reassure suburban voters who are inclined to vote for Republicans. [It says], ‘It's safe to do that without voting for someone who is essentially a bigot.'”
Still, there are reasons to believe that Democrats could have made inroads with voters if they had just loosened up some resources and begun to reframe the question. Polls taken in September by Ohioans Protecting the Constitution showed that 53 percent of the state supported civil unions, a number not terribly dissimilar from the national figures. (Exit polls on November 2 found that some 60 percent of all voters believed in some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples, either through marriage or civil unions.) In Oregon, Kassell tells story after story of swaying voters, including persuading a family that had a “Yes on 36” sign on its lawn to vote against the amendment. “Often it was the opportunity to have the conversation that moved people from a ‘yes' to a ‘no,'” says Kassell. “I think … many people had not even considered all the ways their relationship with their families were protected through marriage and how many rights and responsibilities came with that. When they looked at that they moved to the ‘no' side.”
That message took in a few places. In Ohio, the Republican leadership -- Senators Mike Dewine and George Voinovich, as well as Governor Bob Taft -- joined by AARP came out against Issue One, claiming the measure was too “ambiguously worded.” In Michigan, many Catholic churches came out against their amendment because it appeared “to create serious and undue hardships for a whole class of citizens.”
Still, in the end, as Burress predicted, even Oregon voters voted “yes” on their amendment. “To be a state facing this kind of campaign and to not have leadership at the national level saying the right things was really tough,” says Kassell, who is gearing up to challenge the amendment. “This was about much more than marriage.”
If only the Democrats had understood that.
Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.