SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)–Back in July, when a Field Poll was released showing that California Proposition 8 was trailing 51-42 among likely voters, the Election Day outlook for supporters of traditional marriage wasn’t too bright. Two months later, when a mid-September Field Poll showed Prop 8 backers behind 55-38, the outlook turned grim.
So, how did supporters of Proposition 8 manage, in a mere seven weeks, to turn a 17-point polling deficit into a five-point Election Day victory? It had even trailed in the final three pre-election polls.
Experts and supporters of Prop 8 — the constitutional amendment which overturned a state Supreme Court ruling and banned “gay marriage” — point to a number of factors, led by three main ones: a solid consistent message about the impact of “gay marriage” on public schools, better-than-expected fundraising and historical cooperation among various religious groups to back the measure and get out the vote.
The 52.5-47.5 percent victory resulted in perhaps the biggest setback yet for the movement to legalize “gay marriage” nationwide — as opponents of Prop 8 acknowledge — and one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the pro-family movement. The day after the election, cities across California, including Los Angeles, already were stopping issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Several lawsuits, led by the ACLU and the city of San Francisco, were filed at the California Supreme Court in an attempt to try and prevent Prop 8 from taking effect, but the suits appear to be long shots.
Glen Lavy, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, labeled the passage of Prop 8 as “huge” in the effort to stop the spread of “gay marriage” to all 50 states.
“California is the largest state in the country,” he told Baptist Press. “It has more than 12 percent of the U.S. population. And to quote San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, ‘As California goes, so goes the nation.’ I like that at this point.”
In June, one month after the California Supreme Court issued its ruling, a coalition of liberal and homosexual activist groups led by the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign released a joint statement laying out their strategy for legalizing “gay marriage” nationwide. At the top of the list was defeating Prop 8.
“A loss on the initiative in California — a loss at the hands of voters — would be particularly damaging to work in other state legislatures and other state courts,” the statement said in part. “That makes the California campaign of prime importance…. Marriage in California will transform the national debate on the freedom to marry. It will do that because the decision is well-reasoned constitutional law from the most influential state court in the nation. It will do that because California is an American trendsetter. But marriage in California will do those things only if we can hold onto it.”
Conservatives now have a record of 30-1 in passing marriage amendments nationwide — and that one loss was in Arizona, which on Tuesday reversed course and passed a marriage amendment.
Here’s a look at the various elements that led to Prop 8’s victory:
— A consistent message about public schools.
About two weeks after the September Field Poll showed them trailing by 17 points, Prop 8 officials ran their first television commercial showcasing Richard Peterson, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, listing the implications of “gay marriage” legalization. “People sued over personal beliefs, churches could lose their tax-exemption, gay marriage taught in public schools,” he said. Every remaining TV commercial by the Yes on 8 campaign mentioned the public school aspect. The commercials pointed to a California law that requires schools that teach comprehensive sex-education to include “instruction and materials” that “teach respect for marriage and committed relationships.” According to data on the state website, 96 percent of school districts teach sex-ed and would be required to teach that marriage includes homosexual couples.
“It was one of those issues that we saw resonating with the undecideds,” said Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego and a lead supporter of Prop 8. “It put the other side on the defensive, and they had to spend inordinate amounts of money to rebut what we said. But their rebuttals were easily refuted, and we refuted them by pointing to the California Department of Education’s own websites.”
The message was reinforced when a San Francisco public school first-grade class took a daytime field trip to city hall to celebrate their lesbian teacher’s “gay wedding.” The California Teachers Association further drove home the point of Prop 8 supporters by donating more than $1 million to the opponents’ campaign.
“That [tying ‘gay marriage’ to public schools] was certainly a good strategy, because people don’t want their children being taught that same-sex marriage is the norm,” Lavy said.
— Better-than-expected fundraising.
Prop 8 supporters finished in a virtual tie with opponents on fundraising, with each side raising between $35-$40 million. When comparing the fundraising battle in California to marriage amendment drives in other states, California’s situation sticks out.
“This is the first time that proponents of marriage have not been outspent at least 2-to-1 and sometimes as much at 10-to-1 by the opponents of marriage,” Lavy said. “Usually, our side is way underrepresented, but fortunately there was a lot of support for it this time around.”
ProtectMarriage.com, the main group that supported the amendment, said it had more than 70,000 contributors. Between a fourth and a fifth of its funds were raised in the final two weeks — when money was badly needed in order to rebut a well-funded, final-push ad campaign by opponents.
Clark said he was “completely stunned” by the supporters’ fundraising success.
“We were going into this campaign fully expecting to be outspent 3-to-1,” he said. “… It wasn’t just the large donors. It was the thousands and thousands of California residents that were giving $20, $50, $100 over and over and over again that made this work.”
— Cooperation among and involvement of religious groups.
Evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons were just three of the religious groups that worked together to pass Prop 8. The cooperation transcended politics and race, as seen by the 70 percent of African American and 53 percent of Latino voters who backed it. Increased black turnout in California helped make the difference: In 2004, blacks made up 6 percent of California voters; this year it was 10 percent.
“The grassroots effort by the churches and the cooperation of the churches was unprecedented,” Lavy said. “We’ve never seen that kind of grassroots effort and cooperation from as many different kinds of churches anywhere in any kind of an initiative measure.”
Said Clark, “To see Roman Catholics and evangelicals of all different slants and flavors dropping their doctrinal differences to unite on this one issue was historic.”
Christians in the state fasted and prayed for 40 days in the weeks leading up to the vote.
— San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
The same day the California Supreme Court issued its decision legalizing “gay marriage,” Newsom spoke in front of a rally of supporters where he said, referencing the issue, “The door’s wide open now. It’s gonna happen — whether you like it or not!”
Those over-the-top words made their way into the first Yes on 8 commercial and helped energize Prop 8 supporters.
“That resonated,” Clark said. “It stuck the entire campaign.”
— Multiple cases of intolerance by Prop 8 opponents.
It is estimated that thousands of Yes on 8 yard signs were stolen — so many that ProtectMarriage.com officials sent an e-mail urging supporters to remove their signs off their lawns at night. In one instance, a 76-year-old man and his 77-year-old wife were physically assaulted by a 53-year-old neighbor when the neighbor removed the couple’s Yes on 8 sign and replaced it with a No on 8 sign. He was arrested and they were treated by paramedics. In another instance, a lesbian couple parked an SUV on the street in front of a Yes on 8 house in San Jose and painted the words “Bigots Live Here.” They left the SUV there for two days and removed it a day before it would have been towed. In a third instance cars, signs and fences in an entire community in Yucaipa were spray painted with No on 8 graffiti.
“It’s always impossible to tell what motivated people in voting, but you really saw the hatred of the opponents in this campaign,” Lavy said. “There was no pretense of tolerance. There was vandalism. There was violence. There was bigotry and outright hostility toward religion. It was just hateful. And none of rhetoric on our side was hateful. It was about what we support. It was about what is important.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.