Winning Minnesota

Most of the post-election attention to the gay-marriage ballot fights has focused on the inspiring wins in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state, where same-sex marriages will now be legal.  But equally important in the long-term is what happened in Minnesota on Tuesday.  Eighteen months ago, when the state legislature voted to place a ban on same-sex marriages on the ballot, I wrote that “on November 6, 2012, Minnesota will become the first state to reject one of these amendments.”  Many people (myself included) were skeptical of that prediction.  It was more a hope than a forecast. Until midnight or so last night, I still doubted we’d win.  Losing Minnesota, for me and for my family and friends, would be a punch to the gut even harder than losing California.

In 30 states, same-sex marriage had never won a popular referendum.  Minnesota is reliably blue, but is more socially conservative than people realize.  The state GOP had taken both the state senate and house in 2010, which is what permitted the issue to go to the ballot.  Minnesota is more religious, with a higher percentage of weekly churchgoers, than places like Maine and California.  It’s in the middle of the country, not on one of the coasts.  In 2006, neighboring Wisconsin had approved a broader amendment by 59%-41%.  Polls on gay-marriage amendments had always been notoriously unreliable, underestimating opposition by an average of seven percent. The public polls never showed us beyond that error rate.  Opponents had a devastating, if misleading and exaggerated, message about how gay marriage would mean the loss of religious freedom, kids would be “taught gay marriage,” judicial activists would impose their will, and family structure would unravel. Somehow all of this would be caused by the marriages of people like two of my best friends, a gay-male couple of 25 years living in Minneapolis. Gay marriage advocates had never found the combination to crack the code of these anti-SSM messages.

Over the next 18 months, with the clock ticking toward November 2012, we built a political movement from the ground up. Under the banner of Minnesotans United For All Families, and led by an incomparable tactician and campaign manager in Richard Carlbom and a ferociously smart board chair in Cristine Almeida, we organized a campaign that was unprecedented in size and scope for a ballot fight in the state.  We put together a coalition of more than 700 faith groups and churches, political allies across the spectrum (including prominent conservative and libertarian Republicans), labor groups, people of color, and businesses.

I was told we’d never raise a million dollars in Minnesota and that national donors would stay out because of our poor track record around the country and because the Midwest was a lost cause.  Some national donors did stay out.  But we still raised $12 million.  And while hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated by national groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry, and more by some wealthy individual donors, the vast majority of the money was raised from some 65,000 individual donors in the state.

The message fused conservative and libertarian themes and was honed from the experience of many losses and much research by groups like Freedom to Marry and Third Way. The socially conservative idea was that marriage enhances and cements the shared social values of love, commitment, and strong families.  The libertarian argument was that government has no business limiting the freedom of gays and lesbians to make that commitment.  We took the issue of gay marriage head-on.  We didn’t avoid religion, but instead agued that the religious beliefs of many faiths were being attacked by the proposed ban.  Ads featured Catholics, older couples with gay sons and daughters, former opponents of gay marriage, and identified Republicans.  The most powerful ad, which closed the campaign, excerpted an anti-amendment speech by wounded Iraq war veteran and married father John Kriesel.  Kriesel, a Republican state representative, recounted the sacrifice by Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay soldier killed-in-action in Afghanistan. The campaign’s messaging was informed by Grove Insight and the ads were executed by 76 Words.

Money and messaging were not the only important factors. In the past, advantages in money and sophistication were not enough. In earlier contests, intensity was always on the anti-gay-marriage side.  My anecdotal experience is that the intensity gap was erased in Minnesota and, I suspect, in the other 3 states that fought out the issue this year.  The campaign against the Minnesota marriage ban was infused with a level of dedication and energy that must be rare in politics. That intensity came from young people, and especially from heterosexuals, who seemed as committed as gay activists to beating the amendment.  There is no question that a generational shift has occurred and that that shift is moving itself up the demographic ladder.  It’s not a “gay marriage” issue anymore.  For increasing numbers of Americans, it’s a marriage issue.

In the last week, the Minnesotans United campaign made 900,000 calls to voters; it knocked on the doors of 400,000 homes; it enlisted 27,000 volunteers.  I don’t know what the comparable numbers were on the other side, but Minnesota had never seen anything like it.

This has been a long time coming.  When gay couples sued to get married, opponents laughed at them and courts dismissed them. When they won a few victories in court, opponents countered that the issue was appropriate only for legislative decision. When legislatures started approving gay marriages, opponents argued that the matter shouldn’t be forced on people by elite politicians. “Let the people decide” became their mantra in Minnesota and around the country.

Yesterday the people of four states decided.  They affirmatively voted for gay marriage in three states, and rejected the proposed ban in Minnesota by 52.4% to 47.6%.  (For county-by-county results, see this site.)  In a fifth state, Iowa, they voted to retain a supreme court justice who had been politically targeted for voting in favor of a gay-marriage claim. The result, I expect, will be a profound change in democratic momentum. At the very least, it was the best single day yet for the cause of allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Winning means more state legislators willing to vote for gay marriage. Winning means a greater willingness to take this issue to the ballot in more states, including some where we’ve previously lost.  Winning means more investment by national donors.  Winning means more enthusiasm and energy, more volunteers, more effective messages, more confidence.  Winning at the ballot box had become a Sisyphean task. Again and again, we’d get tantalizing close to the summit, only to have the boulder fall back to the bottom of the hill.  And then, as we looked down to take up the task once more, we’d be taunted for having failed.

Victor Hugo said that there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.  The idea that marriage is good for all families, gay and straight, is taking hold in a religiously devout state in the middle of the country. Winning Minnesota, with the support of 1.5 million of our fellow citizens, means that our time is coming.

Nine down, 41 to go.