Editors' Note: Guest blogger Kenneth Sherrill is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hunter College, CUNY. A specialist in public opinion, voting, and elections, he has been studying the LGBT rights movement since 1972.
Classic studies of electoral behavior not only provide us with comprehensive explanations of why people vote, they also demolish widely accepted myths about voters and elections. David Fleischer's comprehensive, rigorous, and thoughtful report on Proposition 8, released today, succeeds on both levels.
Fleischer's report runs about 450 pages, including 270 pages of appendices designed to support his analysis. One great strength of this approach is that readers are free to mine through the data and to come to their own conclusions. The result should be a vigorous conversation, informed more by data than by instincts or ideology, about what happened in the struggle over Proposition 8.
The good news is that the Proposition 8 campaign was an extraordinary enterprise in movement building. The campaign against Proposition 8 raised over $43 million - a breathtaking amount - from within our community and from our allies. For better or for worse, it often takes a great tragedy to generate the habits of generosity and Proposition 8 served that purpose.
Similarly, the campaign against Proposition 8 mobilized at least 51,000 people who volunteered their time for the campaign. This may well be the largest mobilization of campaign workers for any LGBT cause in American history. Third, the campaign served to dramatize many of the injustices LGBT people experience on a daily basis and to attract a substantial numbers of allies on whom we may be able to call in future campaigns.
The bad news is that the campaign was lost before it began. This is, after all, why those opposed to our rights are always the ones who choose to put our rights on the ballot and why they have such a high percentage of victories in these ballot initiatives.
One of Fleischer's most discouraging arguments is that we benefited from the confusing ballot question - having to vote "yes" if you were against marriage equality and "no" if you were for marriage equality. If we think about it for a minute, we can realize that since opponents of marriage equality were less well educated than supporters of marriage equality, they were more easily confused by the structure of the ballot question. Fleischer estimates that had there been no voter confusion, we would have lost by a 54-46 margin instead of by a 52-48 margin. I suspect that many will pore through the appendices of supporting data to reach their own opinion on this one and I don't particularly look forward to the arguments over sampling error. In any case, we should consider the possibility that had there been no voter confusion, the forces of evil would have won by a larger margin. Ignorance is rarely the ally of justice.
My reading of Fleischer's work indicates that the larger reason why marriage equality was defeated in California is that a huge number of people still hold negative stereotypes of LGBT people - particularly the belief that it's bad to combine LGBT people (or even talk of LGBT people) and children. The anti-marriage-equality forces skillfully exploited these stereotypes and ran a campaign deftly designed to reinforce them. The greatest failure of the campaign against Proposition 8 was to fail to respond in a timely or adequate fashion to the ads that were at the core of this appeal to fear. By the end of the campaign, a Google News search of Proposition 8 messages found about 350 daily messages about schools compared to just over 100 daily messages on equality or just over 100 daily messages on discrimination. Analysis of data from Celinda Lake's standard horserace tracking polls reveals that over the last three weeks of the campaign - starting with the release of the Yes on 8's "Princes" commercial - mothers went from a majority opposing Proposition 8 to a majority supporting it.
Generations of research on voting behavior finds that the largest single effect of election campaigns is to reinforce existing attitudes and predispositions. Conversion is a relatively rare effect in an election campaign. One of the most important lessons to learn from the Proposition 8 campaign is that if supporters of equality wait until rights are on the ballot, they've waited too long. Instead, there must be constant mobilization, slowly educating and enlightening the electorate. The next campaign should be about reinforcing and mobilizing enlightened attitudes toward LGBT people and our rights.