As the campaign in Maine enters the home stretch, our skeevy opponents have unleashed yet another ad claiming that unless marriage equality is overturned, same-sex marriage will be "pushed" on elementary school children.
Our side has responded with calm, rebutting the attacks with facts, statements from authoritative figures, and appeals to higher values. Sadly, that approach has been condemned by well-respected figures in our community, including Andrew Sullivan, Mike Tidmus, the Box Turtle Bulletin and the Bay Area Reporter.
The common thread in the complaints is the belief that we lost Prop 8 last year in large part because our side didn't respond to similar kids/school-based attacks with better, more aggressive ads countering the lies of our opponents. The commentators appear to believe there is some quick way to get out front on the kids/schools issue and our Maine campaign is again failing to do that.
There are several problems with this point of view.
First off, the Maine ads aren't for gay people and our allies - they're for people who can be persuaded to vote for equality - the "movables." One thing that definitely does not work with this essential group of voters is arguments that are lecturing, polarizing or angry. All that does is make movables view the issue as a battle between extremists, precisely what these voters abhor.
Next, the kid/schools attack ads are effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They carry a double-whammy: first, that young people can be taught (read "recruited") to be gay or lesbian, and second, that kids will come home asking questions about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, most parents deep down would really rather their children not turn out to be gay and certainly don't want to be talking about sex, period, let alone gay sex with their kids. This is deep, non-rational stuff.
So, what's our side supposed to do in the heat of a campaign? Put up an ad that says, "This will never happen! The other side is a bunch of sleazy, lying, utterly hypocritical dirtbags!" Not only does this approach turn off the movables, it simply doesn't respond to or calm the fears raised by the ads from the other side. In fact, in the brief window of a campaign there's absolutely no way to educate voters about the nature of sexual orientation or put parents at ease about talking about sex with their children. The only way through these attacks is to respond with calm and to simultaneous appeal to higher, better and still visceral values.
Finally, all of the focus on television ads, both in Maine and California, misses a huge point, namely, that advertising rarely moves more than a tiny fraction of people to change their minds on any candidate, subject or product that people feel they know well. And if there's one issue that everyone thinks they know about, it's marriage.
Yet, somehow, people expect one or two ads to be the magic bullets that make broad swaths of people on either side of the issue jump up and say, "Damn it! I've been wrong about marriage and gay people all along!" Please.
That's precisely why, when it comes to marriage, ads cannot do it - they must be matched with face-to-face conversations with voters. That ultimately was our downfall in California - our side just didn't have the capacity to do this because the scale was too large and our infrastructure too small. In Maine, the scale is more manageable: 275,000 votes to win as compared to over 5.5 million in California.
That is exactly what No on 1 campaign is doing, under the leadership of Jesse Connolly, one of only a tiny handful of people that have ever defeated an anti-gay statewide ballot initiative. They are mounting the most aggressive and at-scale field effort our side has ever put together. They are focused on turning our side out to vote, not satisfying armchair quarterbacks.
We have a real shot to win in Maine. Let's let our folks do their jobs.