Same-sex marriage defense on red alert

by Roger Brigham

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 7, 2008

With same-sex marriage defenders in California being being massively outspent by the Mormon Church and the religious right, feeling the sting of TV ads portraying the issue as the work of meddlesome politicians, seeing money syphoned out of the state to support the Democratic Party, and falling behind in the most recent polls, No On Prop 8 senior strategist Steve Smith was blunt when asked what the current Homeland Security Alert rating would be for the survival of marriage equality in the November election. "To hell with orange -- we're going straight to red," Smith said.

Earlier polls had shown Proposition 8, which would eradicate the right for same-sex couples to marry in California, trailing by about 5 percentage points. This week, a Lake Research poll paid for by the campaign of 1,051 likely voters showed the proposition winning, with 47 percent saying they supported the measure and 43 percent saying no. The polling period was Sept. 29-Oct. 2. That finding is reinforced by a SurveyUSA poll of 670 likely voters showing the proposition winning 47 percent to 42 percent. That poll was taken Saturday and Sunday.

Survey USA said its poll indicated support in the Inland Empire and Central Valley areas of California for denying same-sex marriage rights, opposition in the Bay Area, and a split in Southern California.

No On 8 representatives attributed the swing to complacency in the queer and queer-friendly communities and the unexpectedly massive amounts of money being raised by proposition supporters, particularly the Church of Latter Day Saints, to pay for a barrage of television ads that are swaying young voters.

"I think young people are particularly moved by the volume" of television advertising, Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, said. "I think that trend more than any other trend points to the problem."

In addition to increasing fund-raising efforts, the campaign added Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Gill Fund and former head of Log Cabin Republicans, as campaign director two weeks ago.

"I think he brings a great wealth of campaign experience and familiarity with donors and activists throughout the copuntry, said Geoff Kors, Equality California executive director and a member of the No On 8 Executive Committee. "It also sends a message that this campaign has national implications; i'ts not just about California.

Smith said the campaign to defeat Prop 8 had succeeded in its goal of getting on television first to help "frame" the issue as an equality issue, but had not anticipated the amount of money being raised to support the bill.

"We're currently being very badly outspent," Smith said. "Their ad is really breaking through -- it's reaching across the spectrum and having major penetration.

"Our community is very complacent and assumes we're going to win."

That's only if Prop 8 supporters aren't able to swing voters. And whose face are they using in their ads? San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose decision to start issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in 2004 triggered this year's Supreme Court affirmation of same-sex marriage rights and the current battle to eliminate them.

"Our community is very complacent and assumes we're going to win."

In the Yes on 8 ads, Newsom is shown greeting supporters after the court victory, saying gay marriage is here to stay, "whether you like it or not."

And nothing triggers right-wing ire like being told by the government to do something -- even if that something is merely acknowledging the government does not have the right to deny a basic civil right.

"Our ads are testing as effective," Smith said. "I can tell you they moved people last week. The problem is they have a much bigger buy. We just got out-messaged. Their ad is effective because it shows people being pissed off at government. We need to deliver our own messages."

Asked what messages would be delivered in future ads, Smith said, "I'm not prepared to discuss what we're going to put in ads before we do it. I won't do that."

But clearly, debunking lies will be part of the campaign. On Monday, the Sacramento Bee analyzed the invalidity of some of the comments made in the Yes on 8 ad. In the ad, Pepperdine University law professor Richard Peterson says allowing the law to stand as is means that people can be "sued over personal beliefs, churches could lose their tax exemptions, gay marriage taught in public schools." The Bee points out that other current laws already prohibit discrimination based on such things as gender, religion or orientation; the ruling said protected churches by saying "no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples;" and law prohibits public schools from teaching health and family issues with parental approval.

"We are not matching them dollar for dollar," Smith said "The problem is not in terms of how much we've been raising. We've raised more than we ever have for one of these issues. Their side had raised a lot more from than we expected."

Smith said the No On 8 campaign had spent around $14-15 million so far. About 90 percent of the donors are from California, Smith said, but only 60 to 70 percent of the money is from within the state.

Smith said opposition to the proposition was being killed by pro-Prop TV spending.

"Their buys are more significant and it's because of the Mormon Church," he said. "We had budgeted to spend $20-$22 million. In fact, we're going to spend more than that. The problem is at this point they're going to spend $26 million or so."

"It's going to take everyone to step up to a level they never have before," Kors said. "We have TV ads scripted. We have messages we know that work; they call out the lies they are telling."

"The electorate is still moveable," Lake said. "There are about 20 percent of voters who are either undecided or are moving back and forth on this issue."

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.