Marry Me in ... Maine?

The sixth in a Prospect series on the 174 ballot measures up for a vote this November.

Last week, I announced my caution about the chances of winning same-sex marriage at the ballot in Maryland. Just after I wrote that, a Washington Post poll showed that voters are leaning 52 percent to 43 percent in favor of upholding the marriage-equality law there. I got a lot of pushback, based on that poll. Look, that’s better than the reverse. But those of us who have watched same-sex marriage get voted on—and voted down—32 times since 1996 have learned a few basic things:

  1. The spread is meaningless. All undecideds vote against us.
  2. Our side loses two to five points at the ballot. We end up where we started before the campaign.

I don’t think that voters lie to the pollsters. I think that most people don't think about lesbians and gay men very much. If they don't give the issue much thought, they vote for the status quo: marriage as they've always known it. Faced with the sentence “marriage is between a man and a woman,” some who were leaning our way lose their nerve and go for safety.

Yes, Maryland is different, as I noted. The question is phrased affirmatively instead of negatively. When President Barack Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, he flipped the large African American voting population’s attitude overnight, from against to in favor of our marriages. African American ministers are campaigning for it. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is campaigning for it. Six states and Washington, D.C., now have legal same-sex marriages, and that’s gotten a lot of media attention. It’s certainly possible that, in a squeaker, Maryland citizens could vote to uphold equality. It’s also possible, or even more likely, that we could lose, 49 to 51.

But here’s the good news: We are going to win in Maine. That may seem surprising. Maine is a vast and rural state with only a couple of small cities (Portland, the biggest, has an official population of about 66,000 and a greater-metro-area population of only 500,000). Maine has the oldest average age in the nation. This campaign hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves, because it’s so far from major media markets. But I’m giddy about it. 

As some of you recall, in 2009 Maine’s legislature passed and its then-governor, John Baldacci, signed a marriage-equality law. Protect Marriage Maine—the local puppet group for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—got the signatures to put it up for repeal at the ballot box. The local Roman Catholic diocese poured enormous amounts of money and time into the effort to defeat the law. NOM is currently under investigation in Maine for having poured millions into the initiative at the last minute in ways that sure appear to have violated campaign-finance laws—flagrantly so. At one point, polls suggested that 53 percent of voters would uphold the law, more than are currently saying so in Maryland. In the end, that’s the percentage of voters who shot the law down.

But remember, this is Maine, with a population of just about 1.3 million people. And marriage equality lost by only about 30,000 votes. 

Here’s what thrills me: The pro-equality side never stopped campaigning. The day after the vote, Mainers United for Marriage continued knocking on doors, making phone calls, and working on public education, just as they had the day before the vote. The opposition went home to worry about other things. Our side didn’t have other things to worry about. These are our lives we’re talking about.

After two years of campaigning, last winter Mainers United for Marriage (MUM) huddled with coalition partners like the national strategy group Freedom to Marry and pored over their internal polling. Matt McTighe, MUM’s campaign director, told me that in 2009, their polling six months before the election showed them with 47 percent support—and that, in the end, was the support they got at the polls. In January 2011, they found support for marriage equality bopping between 54 percent and 56 percent, with opposition down in the mid-30s. When I spoke with him in May 2012, McTighe emphasized, “National polling has only gone in one direction on this issue. Polling in Maine has only gone in one direction. We’ve never started out a campaign about marriage with a majority of support, let alone this much support.” So Maine’s equality forces decided it was time to pop the question. 

That in itself is a breakthrough. Every previous time that same-sex marriage has been up for popular vote, opponents have put it there—and set histrionic terms for the debate. Maine’s rematch is the first time in the nation that marriage-equality forces are asking voters to send their lesbian daughters and gay uncles to city hall, bypassing the legislature and courts entirely, in their own good time.

Can you hear me bouncing in my seat with glee?

Here’s how the Washington Blade more recently reported on the Maine campaign:

McTighe, a former Human Rights Campaign staffer who has worked on marriage efforts in Massachusetts and in other New England states for MassEquality and the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, described the 2012 campaign in Maine as a “night and day kind of difference” from that run ahead of the 2009 referendum.

“It’s always been designed from the ground up as a campaign for voters,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about the legislature. We weren’t thinking about a court case or anything like that. Right from the beginning we’ve tried to figure out who are the voters we need to be talking to, let’s employ some of the most sophisticated modeling and tactics that have ever been applied to the marriage movement, let’s bring in the best people, the best consultants, the best field organizers, the best team and put together a plan and a model to figure out who we need to talk to.”…

“You have to make this about the voter themselves. You need to give them a personal reason to connect with the gay people that they know in their lives, to think about this issue in a way that they haven’t thought of before,” said McTighe, who is also a firefighter in the southern coastal Maine town of York. He applauded President Obama for supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples, but stressed the issue remains what he described as a deeply personal one for each potential voter. “You don’t just change your mind because somebody else did. You have to change your mind because somebody made it personal to you. Somebody showed you what is at stake. And also gave you an opportunity to have your questions and concerns addressed. That’s why the grassroots approach has been so unique, to be able to go out and have door-to-door with everyone in our persuadable universe, those people we identified early on.

As in Maryland, Mainers United for Marriage strategized to get the ballot language that would let voters say yes to equality. (Remember, every one of the previous votes on same-sex marriage was phrased in some variation of this hard-to-reject statement: “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”) Here’s the wording that will be on the Maine ballot, which will be easier to vote for than the reverse:

Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?

Of course, the Maine equality forces aren’t just sitting there twiddling their thumbs, content with their polling numbers. They’re running a fierce and well-funded campaign. The door-to-door, voter-ID, and "Get Out the Vote" operations have continued at a smart pace. David Farmer, the campaign’s spokesperson, told me, “Our campaign is built around one-on-one contact, which has never stopped. We are continuing to do heavy one-on-one conversations with folks to try to move them into stronger levels of support. We’re also doing get out the vote and chasing down absentee ballots; we send them, and then follow up. We have spent more than $1.5 million on advertising statewide, featuring real Maine people talking about why marriage matters to their families.” 

Those ads are just wonderful. They’re smart and moving, with real folks with deep Maine accents talking in unscripted and personal ways about why they want to be at the weddings of their lesbian granddaughters and gay neighbors. One ad has a group of volunteer firefighters talking about how they are a brotherhood—and why they’re voting in favor of their gay brother Matt McTighe, who happens to be the MUM campaign director. In another, a WWII vet, a great-grandfather, talks about how proud he is of his granddaughter and her partner, adding, “Marriage is too precious a thing not to share. … This isn’t about politics. It’s about family, and how we as people treat one another.” I dare you to watch it without being moved.  

This time around, marriage equality hasn’t had as much opposition as it did in 2009. Partly, I’ve been told, that’s because the Roman Catholic diocese is in some financial trouble, and because its bishop was reassigned to Buffalo and hasn’t been as focused on Maine. Maybe it’s also because NOM is having to spread itself so thin this year, working in four separate states.

Let’s talk, for a second, about NOM’s four-state effort. Each one has a local front group, but all four anti-equality campaigns (in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington) are being run by NOM’s Frank Schubert, most notorious for running the Proposition 8 ballot campaign in California. So all four states’ anti-equality TV ads look pretty much the same. Protect Marriage Maine’s TV ad (oddly enough, the URL mentions Minnesota) repeats the idea that marriage is not just for the adults involved but for the next generation; that everyone has the right to their own relationships; that Maine already bans discrimination based on sexual orientation; and that same-sex couples can already protect themselves without “redefining marriage.”

But the playbook has been anticipated; Mainers United for Marriage has countered those talking points with all its volunteers. And they’re still ahead. David Farmer told me that, all along, their internal polling has been moving between the mid- to high 50s, with those favoring marriage equality as high as 58.2 percent. The most recent outside polling showed likely voters favoring same-sex marriage by between 52 percent and 57 percent, with one poll two weeks ago showing 55 percent. Unlike in the special 2009 election, this one will get out all voters, including those enthusiastic about re-electing Barack Obama and those eager to elect their popular former governor Angus King as the independent senator from Maine, replacing the retiring Republican Olympia Snowe.

Of course it’s not a slam dunk. Fifty-two percent is too low to be comfortable (although the campaign folks tell me that one didn't include cell-phone-only voters, who are more with us than against us). The campaign will be sweating up until Election Day. But if they lose, they’ll just go home and start campaigning again.

If Mainers United for Marriage does win this time, it will be the first to have taken the question directly to the people, instead of doing it first through the courts or legislature. It won’t be the last; Basic Rights Oregon is teeing up to do the same thing in 2014, having been running an endless education campaign for a couple of years now since it lost a ballot question. This is precisely the effort that will be rolled out in a number of states in years to come: Instead of simply repealing a state’s mini DOMA, pro-equality forces will run education campaigns to change minds—and once they’ve gotten the favorable polling up around 55 percent, they will run ballot initiatives to affirmatively pass a marriage-equality law.

Over time, the demographics will be on our side: Older voters opposed to marriage equality will exit the historical stage and be replaced by young voters overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage. But there’s another thing on our side: passion. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and our families and friends, are fighting for our lives. Our opponents are fighting for an abstract idea. That’s not an even match. We’re going to win.

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