May 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Lessons from N.C. defeat
Chad Griffin, gay news, Washington Blade

Incoming HRC President Chad Griffin is one of two principal partners in Armour Griffin Media Group, which was paid to produce TV ads in North Carolina’s amendment fight. (Photo courtesy of AFER)

In the week leading up to the May 8 vote in North Carolina on a proposed state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, officials with the campaign opposing the amendment said they believed they had a shot at defeating it.

“We were on conference calls where they were saying we are in striking distance,” said lesbian journalist and commentator Pam Spaulding of North Carolina, who publishes the LGBT political blog Pam’s House Blend.

“The campaign was saying 11 points and closing — that we were knocking in half the gap every week that they started the final [campaign] assault,” Spaulding told the Blade.

According to Spaulding, at an election night gathering in Raleigh, campaign leaders and volunteers who worked to defeat the amendment were stunned when the State Board of Elections announced the amendment passed by a 61-39 percent margin.

“Were their numbers that far off or did they know the numbers and were not disclosing them,” Spaulding asked in discussing the information released by the opposition campaign to bloggers. “How could they be 21 points off?”

Officials with the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, which operated the campaign opposing Amendment One, said the numbers they cited were from the polling firm Public Policy Polling, which showed support for the amendment down to 55 percent in the week before the election.

“There were a lot of polls, and they were all across the map,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina and a member of the opposition campaign’s seven-member Steering Committee.

“We actually had internal polling back in January that showed close to 70 percent — around 67 to 68 percent — in favor,” he said. “So we actually do believe we moved it anywhere between seven and 10 points.”

In addition to Equality North Carolina, the organizations represented on the Steering Committee, whom officials said made all key decisions for the campaign, included the Human Rights Campaign; the ACLU of North Carolina; Faith In America; Replacements, Ltd., a gay-owned company that sells upscale dinnerware; Self-Help, an LGBT supportive credit union based in North Carolina; and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a North Carolina group that promotes progressive causes.

In late December or early January the Steering Committee retained the Los Angeles-based Armour Griffin Media Group to produce the campaign TV ads. Officials said the campaign retained the company months before they learned that Chad Griffin, one of the two principal partners in the firm, was to be selected as the new HRC president. Campaign finance records show the campaign paid the company $66,000 for its media work as of May 11, the close of the most recent campaign finance reporting period.

Campbell and campaign co-chair Alex Miller said the campaign built important alliances with progressive groups, LGBT supportive churches and religious leaders, and leaders of the African-American community that would benefit the LGBT community for years to come.

One of the most important developments, Campbell and Miller said, was the decision by the NAACP of North Carolina to come out against the amendment. Under the leadership of Rev. William Barber II, the state’s NAACP president, the historic black civil rights organization activated its chapters in counties across the state to speak out against the amendment.

Barber told the Blade that he believes a majority of black North Carolinians voted against the amendment despite claims by some media outlets that polls showed a majority of blacks favored the ballot measure.

Ray Warren, a former North Carolina circuit court judge who’s familiar with the state’s voting trends and demographics, said a review of the vote in most parts of the state showed that all of the state’s large cities and urban areas voted against the amendment. In what he called a dramatic contrast, all of the rural counties and nearly all of the suburbs outside city boundaries voted for the amendment.

Ninety-two of the state’s 100 counties voted for the amendment. Each of the eight counties voting against it included cities or urban-oriented towns with universities within their boundaries.

According to Warren, in a development rarely seen in the state, black and white voters appeared to vote alike, with majority white and majority black precincts voting for the amendment in rural and suburban areas. In cities and urban centers, majority black and majority white precincts voted against the amendment, Warren said.

Debate over campaign message

Brent Childers, gay news, Washington Blade

Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, said the campaign could have been more effective in challenging and refuting religious arguments used to support Amendment One. (Photo courtesy of Childers)

Some LGBT supportive observers wanted to know whether the message projected by the campaign opposing the amendment in TV ads and other media amounted to the best means possible to persuade voters to reject the amendment.

Marriage equality supporter Brent Childers, executive director of the North Carolina-based group Faith in America, which challenges what Childers calls the “misuse” of religion to deny rights to LGBT people, said the campaign could have been more effective in challenging and refuting religious arguments used to support Amendment One.

Still others, including North Carolina lesbian activist Mandy Carter, joined Spaulding in expressing concern that the opposition campaign mostly “de-gayed” its messages in TV ads by stressing the harms the amendment would have on straight unmarried couples.

Campaign officials dispute these claims, saying the campaign aggressively embraced its support for marriage equality for gays and projected that message through many campaign venues, including online videos as well as TV ads.

The campaign recruited a lesbian mother to appear in one of the three TV ads aired shortly before the election. Campaign officials told the media in a press release that the woman and her same-sex partner rely on the partner’s employee health insurance to provide coverage for their daughter.

But in the TV ad the woman isn’t identified as a lesbian. While driving a car with her child sitting next to her she says Amendment One would likely result in the loss of her daughter’s health insurance.

“[It’s] because we’re not married,” she says in the ad, referring to her partner. The partner’s gender isn’t mentioned.

“If you’re watching it on television there’s no way to know,” Spaulding said, referring to the woman’s sexual orientation.

Campaign officials said they believe the ad was effective in showing how the amendment would have serious consequences for unmarried couples, gay or straight, and it likely persuaded some voters to oppose the amendment.

In a series of interviews, pollsters, campaign officials, political analysts affiliated with North Carolina universities, representatives of LGBT advocacy groups, and LGBT supportive straight allies provided the Blade with a wide range of opinions addressing these questions.

Most agreed, however, that private polls commissioned for the campaign as well as polls conducted by other pollsters showed that a solid majority of North Carolinians oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. They noted that the same polls showed that a campaign and vote framed only around the question of whether gays should be allowed to marry would result in a certain defeat for the pro-marriage equality side.

Leaders of the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families said they chose an “evidence-based” approach of using the best possible research from privately commissioned polls to develop the message they ultimately used.

That message focused on how Amendment One goes far beyond banning same-sex marriage and, among other things, would ban civil unions for gay and straight couples. It could also lead to a wide range of harmful effects on all unmarried couples, gay and straight, and their children, the group stressed in its “messaging” campaign.

Advocates of this approach noted that an existing law in North Carolina already prohibited same-sex marriage and that an amendment to the state constitution doing the same thing was unnecessary.

Supporters of the amendment disputed that assertion, saying a constitutional amendment was needed to prevent a court from overturning the state’s existing law banning same-sex marriage. They noted that gay rights advocates had already filed at least one lawsuit challenging the existing gay marriage statute.

Political observers noted that after blocking a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage for years under Democratic Party leadership, the state legislature approved a proposal to place the issue before the voters in 2011 after Republicans gained control of the legislature for the first time in decades in the 2010 election.

Over the strong objections of many Democrats and some Republicans, supporters of the amendment worded it in a way that expanded its scope beyond just marriage.

Amendment One states, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

The amendment adds, “This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

Legal experts in the state have said the amendment’s definition of marriage as the “only domestic legal union” would place in jeopardy rights and benefits currently being offered to gay or straight unmarried couples, such as domestic partner benefits offered by private companies or local governmental entities like cities and towns, including health insurance benefits and hospital visitation rights.

The Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families cited legal experts who said safeguards against domestic violence might also be jeopardized by the amendment, with the possibility that a court could no longer issue a legal “stay away” order for a partner accused of physically abusing the other partner if the couple were not married.

“We saw that all these terrible things could happen,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of the state LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina and a member of the Steering Committee of the campaign opposing the amendment.

Supporters of the amendment, led by the state group Vote for North Carolina Marriage and the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, said claims that the amendment would impact health insurance benefits, domestic violence protections or child custody rights were unfounded.

Campbell said the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families’ Steering Committee initially hired the LGBT supportive polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research headed by pollster Anna Greenberg. In an effort to get a second opinion, the Steering committee a short time later retained Lake Research Partners, another LGBT supportive campaign research firm headed by pollster Celinda Lake. Both firms have long-established records of helping to win elections for mostly Democratic candidates and progressive causes.

Lake was the pollster in the 2006 campaign opposing a proposed same-sex marriage ban in Arizona that was defeated by voters, the only such ballot measure to lose in more than 30 states across the country that voted on such a measure. Observers said the measure lost in Arizona because most voters disagreed with the additional restrictions it would place on unmarried couples, similar to the “harms” cited by opponents of Amendment One in North Carolina.

Two years later, Arizona voters approved a same-sex marriage ban that didn’t include the additional restrictions on unmarried couples.

Lake told the Blade that the North Carolina campaign stressed the harms Amendment One would cause to gay and straight unmarried couples, including the children of such couples, but it was not modeled directly after the Arizona campaign since the two states have different voter demographics and political traditions.

Lake said her early polling in North Carolina conducted to test different messages clearly found that a message of the potential harm Amendment One would cause for unmarried couples, gay and straight, children of these couples, and women threatened by domestic violence resonated with many voters. Among other things, a significant number of voters who planned to vote for Amendment One changed their position and stated in her poll that they would vote against it after learning about the amendment’s impact beyond banning same-sex marriage, Lake said.

Lake described as historic the North Carolina campaign’s use of a TV ad asserting that Amendment One would harm children, saying it represented the first time a campaign opposing a ballot measure seeking to ban same-sex marriage has argued that such a proposal would harm children.

She noted that in all previous campaigns, supporters of anti-gay ballot measures argued that same-sex marriage would be harmful to children. In North Carolina, the campaign against the amendment turned the tables on the anti-marriage equality forces, opening the way for this “game-changing” strategy in future battles against ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage, Lake said.

When asked why Amendment One passed by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin despite the use of the “unintended consequences” and harm to children strategy, Lake and others working with her on the campaign cited the campaign’s lack of sufficient funds to pay for more TV ads and their inability to begin airing the ads sooner.

Jeremy Kennedy, the campaign manager hired by the coalition Steering Committee to carry out the committee’s game plan, said more than 60 percent of the $2.8 million raised by the campaign came in during the last few weeks leading up to the May 8 election.

The three TV ads the campaign used didn’t begin airing until the state’s early voting had already started about 15 days prior to Election Day.

“I was surprised that the opposition campaign didn’t get on the air sooner,” said Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan, who said he followed the campaigns for and against the amendment.

“To move voters you need to put on TV ads much sooner,” he said.

Kennedy said that in the last few weeks of the campaign, donors began to respond when some outside polls, including those conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling, showed the projected vote for the amendment dropping to about 55 percent.

“If we all had our way and we had early money we would have done several months of TV,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, 34, is a native of Texas who moved to D.C. in 2007 to work on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. After Clinton dropped out of the presidential race following the primary season in 2008, Kennedy took a job with the Human Rights Campaign’s field department in Washington.

In 2010 he moved to Maine to work on the gubernatorial primary campaign of Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, who won the primary but lost the general election to Republican Gov. Paul Lepage. Following that campaign, Kennedy went to work as a state field director for the Maine Democratic Party.

He next went to Rhode Island to work on the legislative effort in the state to pass a same-sex marriage law. The legislature changed course and approved a civil unions bill rather than a marriage law. Shortly after returning to Maine, which he considers his home state, Kennedy was recruited to North Carolina last December, where the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families hired him as campaign manager to work for the defeat of Amendment One.

One source familiar with the campaign said the Steering Committee awarded Kennedy a $5,000 bonus near the end of the campaign. Another source expressed concern that money for the bonus would have been better used to pay for additional media ads.

Campbell declined to confirm the amount of the bonus, saying it was a personnel matter that would not be appropriate to discuss publicly. However, he added, “It was not such a large amount that it would make a difference in the media campaign.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Jeremy,” Campbell said. “I think he did an excellent job. He ran the campaign that we hired him to run.”

HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz agreed with Campbell’s assessment of Kennedy.

“In everyone’s estimation – including ours – Jeremy Kennedy is a superstar!” Sainz said in an email to the Blade. “This campaign brought together a diverse coalition that left behind an infrastructure in North Carolina upon which we can build upon for progressive politics and gay rights.”

Sainz said that while the loss was a big disappointment, ballot measures banning same-sex marriage passed in the other Southern states by an average of 75 percent in past years. He said the 61 percent to 39 percent margin of approval of a gay marriage ban in North Carolina shows “amazing progress among Southerners and Americans in general on the issue of marriage equality.”

Approval by voters in Virginia of a state constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2006 by a margin of 57 percent marked the only Southern state with support for such an amendment at a lower percentage than North Carolina. Florida passed such an amendment with a margin of 62 percent in 2008. South Carolina approved a marriage ban amendment by a 78 percent margin of approval in 2006.

Campbell and campaign co-chair Miller said reports by some critics that the campaign ended with a significant surplus and that the campaign chose not to distribute yard signs to urge voters to defeat the amendment were not true.

The campaign distributed as many as 15,000 yard signs opposing Amendment One in mostly urban areas throughout the state, campaign officials said.

Miller said that the campaign’s finance report filed on May 21 showing a $92,317 surplus was based on incomplete data. Bills for media-related expenses and other expenditures had yet to be paid at the time of the report’s filing deadline. He said final expenses would be shown in a final, end-of-the-year report to be filed with the election board.

“We were pretty much down to the last penny,” he said of the campaign’s spending.

‘Mood is grim’

A 17-page memo that Greenberg sent to the campaign Steering Committee on Dec. 6, 2011, a copy of which the Blade obtained, says her polling found that a significant number of voters were inclined to change their vote from “yes” to “no” on the amendment after they learned of the potential harmful impact it would have, including its prohibition against civil unions and overall harmful effects on children.

Greenberg noted in her memo that many voters who opposed same-sex marriage did not object to civil unions for gay or straight couples.

But unlike Lake, Greenberg stated the overall prospects for defeating Amendment One were not encouraging even when the “unintended effects” were spelled out to prospective voters.

“The mood is grim — and conservative — in North Carolina,” she said in the memo. “North Carolina shocked the country by delivering its electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2008. The world has since turned,” she wrote in the memo. “Half of this (special) electorate describes their feelings toward Obama in negative terms,” she added in discussing her poll findings.

A source familiar with the campaign, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said Greenberg made it clear she didn’t think a victory was possible for the opposition side. Instead, she recommended the campaign adopt a strategy that would educate voters and help their opinions in favor of marriage equality for a future campaign, the source said.

“We would not complicate this issue with a discussion of the impact this would have on straight, unmarried couples, despite the Arizona experience,” she wrote in her memo. “Voters’ moral judgment is not expended entirely on the LGBTQ community as voters here have problems with unmarried straight couples living together as well. An additional focus on straight couples does not make enough difference to justify muddying up your message,” she said in the memo.

She said her memo was based on a survey of 600 likely special election voters in North Carolina taken Nov. 16-21, 2011. She said her poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, found that 66 percent of the voters surveyed supported Amendment One, with 30 percent opposing it.

“More information and messaging reduced down the margin so by the end of the survey the support side leads by 24 points (59 percent favor, 36 percent oppose),” she said of the poll.

Greenberg’s adjusted poll numbers, reflecting the “messaging” that opponents used in the campaign, came close to the 61 percent to 39 percent outcome of the election nearly six months later.

Similar to Lake, Greenberg noted in her memo that opponents of Amendment One would need to invest in an extensive media campaign to educate voters of the harms the amendment would likely cause LGBT people and others.

Kennedy told the Blade that despite the fact that the campaign came close to meeting its $3 million fundraising goal, far more money was needed to educate voters that polls showed would switch from support to opposition of the amendment if they knew it went beyond just banning same-sex marriage.

Rev. Barber of the NAACP said the media were partially responsible for the lack of voter education.

“The folks who brought this forward framed it on whether you support gay marriage on religious grounds,” he said. “And the media fell for this. They should have made it clear that this was a constitutional amendment that would take away rights.”

He added, “The NAACP saw a dangerous pattern. We saw the rights of a minority being put up for a popular vote. The media never asked the right questions.”

Childers of Faith In America said he attempted but did not succeed in persuading the campaign to directly respond to attacks against same-sex marriage by religious groups and leaders. He said Faith In America, which was co-founded by gay businessman Mitchell Gold, believes the opposition vote would have been considerably higher if the campaign addressed the religion issue “head on” in TV and other media ads.

Childers noted that the campaign opposing the amendment, among other things, should have responded to religious leaders’ claims that same-sex marriage is against God’s will. The Rev. Billy Graham was among the religious leaders in the state to come out for the amendment.

When told that sources familiar with the campaign said campaign officials were reluctant to question or challenge voters’ religious beliefs, Childers said, “That’s one of the fallacies that frankly our own community have fallen prey to. Any person that has spent much time at all in a religious environment knows that religious teachings are questioned all the time,” he said.

“If you look at the voice of history it is crystal clear when it comes to misuse of religious teachings to justify prejudice and discrimination against minorities,” Childers said. “We have concluded as a society on a number of occasions that that is simply a moral failing as a society.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • As I recall, a poll showed that only about 20% of eligible voters cast a ballot. That would explain a lot. We need to motivate our supporters to vote.

  • Claude Summers at blogged about how awful the campaign in California was. His main point was that the campaign ads that we put out emphasizing the collatoral damage caused by Amendment One and barely mentioning same-sex marriage was both a flawed strategy and also a duplicitous one. Our real concern was same-sex marriage and to pretend that we were mostly concerned about how it would damage children or unmarried heterosexuals was simply lying. Instead of defending same-sex marriage, and indeed saying that same-sex marriage was a good thing, we evaded the issue, in effect conceding that if Amendment One only banned same-sex marriage it would be okay. That simplified the work of our opponents. They just said that wasn’t true and that Jesus wanted you to vote against same-sex marriage.

    I am sorry to learn that Chad Griffin had something to do with this campaign. I was hoping that he would bring new energy and fresh thinking to the Human Rights Campaign. If his idea of effective campaigning is that used in North Carolina, please, please, please replace him at HRC.

  • Another lesson is that, when polled, bigots lie.

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