On November 3, 2004, leaders in the movement for LGBT equality watched as voters in 11 US states overwhelmingly approved ballot measures banning marriage for gay and lesbian couples. The moment was devastating for thousands of families in those states, as well as hundreds of advocates who had been forced into the fight.
Prior to that election, many LGBT leaders were hesitant to prioritize marriage as an issue, believing America wasn’t ready for that conversation. They preferred to focus on other issues such as protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from discrimination. But opponents of equality wanted a wedge issue and managed to force marriage to the fore.
Before the losses of 2004, a few foundations, including the Gill Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, already had been supporting public education efforts to promote the freedom to marry. Following 2004’s string of defeats, the Gill Foundation hosted an emergency convening of LGBT leaders and funders in Denver to develop a serious national public education campaign.
The goal was clear and daunting: to win a majority for marriage. The challenge of building that majority would be massive. In 2004, national support for same-sex marriage stood at 31 percent, with opposition at 60 percent, according to Pew Research.
Within months of the Denver meeting, a plan was underway, including priority investments in public opinion research. Early research focused largely on polling, with relatively limited investment in qualitative research. Early polling consistently indicated two important findings: 1) a strong majority opposed same-sex marriage, and 2) an even stronger majority was sympathetic to the unfairness of denying certain protections, such as hospital visitation, to gay couples.
Armed with that information, the LGBT movement at first studiously focused its messaging on the rights that same-sex couples were being denied. A 2006 Colorado ad promoting the concept of civil unions, for example, featured a man sitting alone in a hospital corridor, having been denied the right to visit his partner’s room because they were not, legally, family. The tag line read, “It’s not marriage, it’s basic civil rights.” A 2008 ad in California featured two women sitting at a kitchen table talking about the marriage of a gay couple they knew. One of the women expressed her conflict over the issue, and the other woman asked, “Are you really willing to take away rights?”
Poll after poll showed that these ads resonated with viewers, but they failed to sway voters at the ballot box. By 2009, the LGBT movement had lost 30 statewide votes over marriage for gay couples, including a shocking loss on California’s Proposition 8, which overturned same-sex couples’ right to marry in the state. The movement’s public education campaign clearly wasn’t moving public opinion as hoped.
In the wake of Proposition 8, advocates proposed a new project: They wanted to research why, when polls showed such high support for the rights of marriage, the public continually rejected the freedom to marry at the ballot box.
The proposed research project would focus in one state at first and use a combination of polling paired with more intensive qualitative research, including focus groups and interviews. The project would include multiple rounds over several months, with each phase of research informing the development of subsequent phases. Following the research conducted among focus groups and polls, the project would test various types of paid advertising in the real world to assess the efficacy of new messages.
Movement organizers quickly chose Oregon as the pilot state. Oregon’s leading LGBT advocacy organization, Basic Rights Education Fund, was a particularly strong in-state partner, which was important given the complexity of the project. Oregon also had relatively affordable media markets, which would ensure efficient use of funding.
In a series of focus groups, researchers had their “eureka” moment. Listening to people talk about why they chose to marry—because they fell in love and wanted to make a lifetime commitment—researchers realized the LGBT movement had been making a critical mistake with its emphasis on rights-based messages.
Moveable audiences—those Americans who weren’t yet with our cause but might be persuaded to support it—were wrestling with concerns that allowing gay couples to marry would somehow change the institution of marriage. Hearing gay people talk about marriage in unfamiliar terms—as a collection of rights, from inheritance to hospital visitation—reinforced those concerns.
Following this realization, researchers tested a new approach. They presented gay couples talking about marriage in a more familiar way, invoking the shared values of love and commitment. This approach, tested in newly developed ads, allowed moveable audiences to get past their conflict and support the freedom to marry.
Perhaps no ad better captured the message of love and commitment than one featuring the Gardner family in Maine. In the 2012 ad, four generations of the Gardner family sat around the kitchen table as the grandparents spoke. They talked about what their own marriage of 59 years had meant to them and how they wanted their granddaughter, Katie, to be able to make the same kind of lifelong commitment to her partner. The grandfather, a World War II veteran and lifelong Catholic, said, “Marriage is too precious a thing not to share.” And the words “love, commitment, marriage” scrolled across the screen.
The results spoke for themselves—and not just in Maine, where voters approved marriage at the ballot that year. In Pew’s national poll, support for marriage equality grew from 42 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2015, creating an undeniable national imperative and setting the stage for the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right in Obergefell v. Hodges.
There is little doubt that messaging was an important factor in shifting public opinion so dramatically and so quickly. For advocates working on other issues, there are clear lessons from the movement’s messaging failures and successes.
First, knowing your audience matters. And it’s not just demographic data that’s important. To build majority support, you must understand deeply how moveable audiences think and feel about your issue. Too often, advocates use messages that may feel right to them, or energize their base of supporters, but fail to resonate with the people who need to be persuaded.
Second, be smart about messaging research. We are all guilty from time to time of relying too heavily on polling, which has its purposes but can be insufficient, especially on emotionally complicated issues. The only way to really understand your moveable audience is to listen to it. The last few years have seen a wealth of innovation in how to conduct qualitative research relatively quickly and affordably. Such research adds a richness of understanding that polling simply can’t provide.
Finally, nothing happens without funders who understand the commitment required to execute effective messaging research. It takes tremendous investment to conduct the kind of multi-methodology research that transformed the marriage movement, let alone the capacity to disseminate it and maintain message discipline across many organizations and throughout the country. LGBT funders were willing to make that investment, and it paid off.
It would be an oversimplification to reduce the campaign for the freedom to marry to successful messaging. The campaign engaged hundreds of thousands of passionate advocates across the country, people who were willing to share their personal stories and tirelessly push for change with their friends, neighbors, co-workers, elected officials, and federal judges. But it’s certainly true that the swift and dramatic change in public opinion was inextricably tied to the movement gaining a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the public’s feelings about the issue. The ability to move individuals from opposition to support was the result of a willingness to meet them where they were with empathy, travel with them through their conflict, and welcome them to the other side, united around the values we hold so dear.