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Why We Lost in California: An Analysis of "No on 8" Field Strategies

Editor's Note: We are very pleased to publish this constructive critique of field strategies for the unsuccessful effort to defeat the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 initiative in California. Its author is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a student at Harvard Divinity School and the director of The Progressive Project (TPP). During the 2008 election season, TPP worked in six cities across the nation to engage communities in actions to elect Barack Obama and to defeat Proposition 8 on the California ballot. This article is based upon her work on the No on 8 campaign, and on other campaigns to defeat similar ballot measures.

On November 4, Proposition 8 passed in California, enshrining in the state constitution a ban on same sex marriage. Similar amendments also passed in Florida and Arizona. We have now lost campaigns like this in 29 states; we have won only once - in Arizona in 2006. On a human level, these defeats are a blow to people across the nation who care about civil rights and equality. On a strategic level, they are explicable; after all, we continue to rely on the same strategies despite mounting evidence that they do not work.

What is required as the LGBT movement goes forward is a commitment to permanent political engagement and a national grassroots strategy and infrastructure that complement our national legal strategy. We must also finally do what our opponents have long been doing: treating each statewide ballot measure as a national campaign.

The loss in California is a particularly apt case study because it took place in our nation’s largest state and because the opposition made it a national campaign from the start. A full analysis of this loss falls into three overlapping categories:

--An aerial view of the infrastructure, strategies and mindset of the national LGBT movement;
--A "zoom-in" view of the specific field, messaging, and funding strategies used by the No on 8 campaign; and
--a similar "zoom-in" view of the strategies used by two concurrent, successful national campaigns: "Yes on 8" and the Obama campaign.

In this article, I will focus on an analysis of the field strategies used by the "No on 8" campaign

Proposition 8 passed by 510,591 votes. We don’t know if that gap could have been closed. But we do know that the "No on 8" campaign could have run a more visionary, nimble and aggressive field strategy. Ultimately the field strategy came up short in two critical, related areas:

First, the "No on 8" campaign did not become national until October, limiting both the volunteers and donors it could engage.

Second, the campaign’s field strategy failed to effectively reach enough swing voters enough times to turn them out as “no” voters.

I'll deal with these two problems in turn.

The slow development of a national campaign

Geography is no longer a barrier to engaging in political campaigns: new media technology, social networking features, and online predictive dialing systems mean that people can participate in a campaign from anywhere in the country.

The "Yes on 8" campaign was able to make this a national effort from the start, by tapping into the infrastructure of churches and online networks like Focus on the Family that know how to mobilize quickly. Additionally, they immediately saw both the national and historic implications of this campaign, arguing that it mattered at least as much as the presidential race.

In contrast, the "No on 8" campaign did not become national until October and even then it remained challenging for people outside California to engage as anything but donors. The common explanation for this is that there simply wasn’t enough time. Yet as early as 2006, I was told by strategists at a national LGBT organization that they fully anticipated fighting an anti-marriage ballot measure in California in 2008, and that it represented a rare chance to win. During the last two years, it would have been both prudent and strategic to develop a blueprint for a national campaign that could be quickly activated when the ballot measure was announced.

Instead, the campaign got off to a fitful and inaccessible start in May. It was not until June that volunteers in California were able to participate meaningfully in the campaign; and not until September that out-of-state volunteers were able to do anything more than give money. During this time, efforts to engage (by hosting remote phonebanks, and by coming to California to volunteer) were met by near radio silence from the campaign.

These internal limitations were further aggravated by the campaign's modest use of new media strategies – such as tapping into the power of the blogosphere and Facebook – to clearly communicate to the national LGBT community the urgency of this moment. Once these strategies were implemented in the final weeks of the campaign, a national community was able to engage more quickly and effectively. But by then it was too late.

Effective national engagement was further hampered for a big picture reason: there is no established local movement center in the LGBT movement. A local movement center is a grassroots mechanism that allows people to connect to campaigns in time-sensitive moments. The classic example of the local movement center is the African-American Church in the civil rights movement; a timelier example is the grassroots groups of Obama supporters that worked together on the local level and that connected to each other through the campaign’s social networking tools. Absent this essential mechanism, people are left to engage as individuals and their impact is dissipated.

Consider what might have been: prior to this fall, anti-marriage amendments had passed in 26 other states. In each state, a campaign fought this amendment. In other words, the LGBT movement has teams of trained volunteers in 26 states who have worked on similar campaigns. The campaign could have been running remote phonebanks in each of these states. But it did not.

Going forward, we must run national campaigns to defeat measures on state ballots, just as the opposition does.

Inadequate and tardy efforts to reach swing voters

The campaign decided early on not to use canvassing to reach swing voters and instead to rely upon phonebanks. Given the short campaign cycle, the size of California and the diffusion of swing voters, this decision may have been the right one; but it seems that a campaign should be absolutely certain before abandoning canvassing, which remains the most effective method of persuading and turning out voters.

The campaign was then late to launch its phonebanking efforts. Calls to swing voters should have begun early in the summer to reach the kind of contact rate that is required for persuasion and turn out. But phonebanks did not begin in earnest until September. In October, the campaign began using a predictive dialing system and both the volume of calls made and the connect rate increased significantly. But by then there was simply wasn’t time to reach all the voters we needed to.

The rate of voter contact was further slowed by the fact that the campaign used an inefficient top-down method of engaging volunteers: in order to participate in a remote phonebank, for example, a volunteer had to sign up on the website and wait to be contacted by the campaign. By contrast, we can look to the successful field strategies of both the Deval Patrick and Obama campaigns, which used bottom-up models in which volunteers could access voter lists and phonebank without any direct management from the campaign.

The "No on 8" campaign also relied upon a monochromatic field strategy across the state of California rather than using tailored strategies in key areas. As an alternative, the state could have been treated like a microcosm of the nation: with blue districts, red districts and swing districts. Each district could have had a field plan appropriate to its likely voting patterns. Areas such as the Bay Area, where opposition to the proposition was at its strongest, could have been tapped to do intensive outreach to swing districts. For the past two years, the Obama campaign has offered a model of this kind of mobilization, as voters in blue states and districts worked in traditionally red territories.

On Election Day – when one would expect a targeted turn out effort -- the campaign instead decided to deploy all its volunteers in one of the least effective forms of GOTV strategy: visibility (holding up signs at intersections and near polling places). The campaign paid a firm to make turn out calls to voters through Election Day, but to the best of my knowledge, no attempt was made to flush identified supporters.

Going forward, our field strategies need to blend the best practices of new media with old school community organizing and get out the vote strategies.

I catalog these particulars because they matter, and also because we are not dealing with isolated challenges. The LGBT movement is a generation behind in the best practices of campaigns (many of which are derivatives of Dean’s presidential run, Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign, and now Obama’s). We must catch up and do so quickly. The national non-profits that are running these anti-amendment campaigns are mostly barred from participating in partisan political activities. Is it possible that because of this, we have fallen behind, failing to capture the salient lessons of the last two election cycles?

Indeed, to fully understand the "No on 8" campaign, we also need to look at characteristics of the "Yes on 8" campaign and the Obama campaign. These successful national campaigns illustrate what was possible in 2008. The "Yes on 8" campaign knew this needed to be national from the start; was able to tap into the infrastructure of churches and social and political groups to; ran a door-to-door ground game; scared voters into thinking that Proposition 8 would affect school curricula; and capitalized in television ads upon unfortunately elitist-sounding rhetoric used on an isolated occasion by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign effectively fused new media strategies with the best of old school organizing and GOTV strategies; it also modeled the power of a dynamic messenger and stirring rhetoric in engaging both the base and new allies. Both of these campaigns used strategies that the LGBT movement needs to adapt in future campaigns.

It may well be that this loss in California is the wake up call we needed. Only time will answer that question. This much I know: the opportunities before us are tremendous if only we can harness them. Below I propose a framework that includes five specific recommendations for the LGBT movement:

1) Values-Based Organizing Ethic: The LGBT movement needs to adapt a values-based organizing ethic that guides its actions, strategies and messaging; absent such an ethic, our efforts will continue to be diffuse and in critical moments. As a result we see a fragmented national response to this most recent defeat and mixed messaging coming from some of the very national organizations that helped to lead this campaign.

2) A National Grassroots Infrastructure & Strategy: We need to develop a national grassroots strategy and infrastructure that is coordinated with the movement’s legal strategy, and that can be activated quickly in time-sensitive moments. At the core of this, the LGBT movement needs to develop a local movement center which can be replicated in any community and activated in time-sensitive moments.

3) Rapid Response System: The LGBT movement needs to develop a rapid response system which can be deployed nationally when ballot measures are announced.

4) Best Practices & Culture of Innovation: The LGBT movement needs to devote resources to adapting the best practices of new media and fusing them with old school community organizing and get out the vote strategies.

5) New Forms of Engagement with Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage: The LGBT movement needs to develop new models and strategies for engaging with communities that oppose same-sex marriage. These models must extend beyond the limited tonal range of either conversion or condemnation. They must, instead, feature authentic engagement about real differences of belief, ideology and theology. In campaign seasons, we must also use more nuanced messaging to conflicted swing voters.

TPP is developing models and strategies in each of the five areas and we welcome opportunities to engage in dialogue and collaboration.

Let me be clear: I am not blaming this loss on the "No on 8" campaign. But nor can we afford to keep making the same mistakes. Too often, we answer the difficult question of why we lose by pointing to the robust funding of the other side and to the enduring forces of bigotry. The hard truth is that we fail our national community if we let the analysis stop there.

We do not yet know what lessons the national leadership of the LGBT movement will draw from this loss; or what the outcome will be of the legal challenges being posed to Proposition 8; or if the growing grassroots energy on display now will evolve into a sustainable and effective effort. My hope is that what we saw happening in the final weeks of the No on 8 campaign, as a national community was finally activated, points us toward the next iteration of our movement.

Equality has never been won easily, or without struggle, sacrifice and a willingness to take bold strategic and imaginative risks. It is no different for the LGBT community. We are mid-stride in a long-term effort; in the long view, our progress is clear. In the short view, we must understand why we lost and we must cultivate a culture of innovation in which we are willing to develop and test new strategies. Until we do, I fear that what will continue to happen is precisely what just has: we will lose.

3 Comments

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Dear TDS:

This is exactly the kind of in-detail strategy discussion Democrats need to see more of. Readers can agree or disagree with specific conclusions or recommendations, but this nuts-and-bolts way of thinking about winning campaigns is vital if we are to prevail in 2010 and beyond.

Excellent analysis -- thanks for doing it, and thanks to TDS for posting.

It's early days yet, but it's encouraging to see that the post-election activism -- such as the Join the Impact campaign -- responds to several of these points: a national movement from the start, meaningful involvement everywhere, and effective use of new media technologies (a wiki, Facebook).

This is one of the most thoughtful analyses I've read to date. It has been disturbing to see all the back and forth blaming and the inflammatory rhetoric within the movement, much of it incredibly misinformed. Mostly because it is by people who are armchair activists or have never been deeply involved in either LGBT issues or run campaigns.

This is right on target. The only thing I would add is there should have been a vote-by-mail (absentee voter) strategy as well.

Thanks Jasmine--your tone and your good thinking are a benefit. I'll be sending this one around.

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