How Third Way Transformed the Approach to Marriage Equality
We woke up the morning after 2008’s historic election to a grim reality: marriage equality’s record at the ballot box was an even 0 for 30. In the soul-searching that followed, we launched a coordinated effort with a handful of key organizations in the LGBT movement to understand how we could start convincing a lot more swing voters to pull the lever for marriage.
After several rounds of deep psychological and public opinion research, we found that “marriage” conjured for voters thoughts of responsibility, obligation, fidelity, and commitment—no one said anything about rights. That revealed a huge disconnect from the arguments marriage advocates were making, which focused on “the 1,138 federal rights” tied to marriage.
When we probed further, we found that people who believed gay couples married because of love and commitment were much more likely to support marriage equality than those who thought couples were motivated by rights.
We realized that to move the needle, we needed to convince Americans in the middle that gay couples want to marry for the same reason any other couple does—not to get a tax break, but to make a promise of lifetime commitment and fidelity to the person they love.
We launched the Commitment Campaign to do exactly that. Traveling to the four states with marriage ballot initiatives in 2012, we made the case to advocates that they should talk about marriage in terms of commitment to persuade voters in the middle. Our efforts worked. Advocates and political leaders at all levels (including President Obama) fully embraced this new values-based message, and marriage equality swept to victory in all four states. But that was just the beginning. As our messaging took root, polls showed skyrocketing support for marriage equality, and three more state legislatures passed laws permitting marriage for gay couples. By June, the Supreme Court had struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, establishing federal support for marriage equality.
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