Politician of the Year: ‘Vote No’ campaigns defied the odds in constitutional referendums
by Paul Demko
Published: January 4,2013
Time posted: 3:44 pm
Tags: AARP, Bob Cummins, Cristine Almeida, Doran Schrantz, gay marriage, Greta Bergstrom, Joan Cummins, MN United, Our Vote Our Future, Richard Carlbom, Scott Dibble, Voter ID
“We love our families and our families are strong,” said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who is openly gay and married his partner in California. “People will know that in the next 18 months. And you know what? Thirty-one states, there’s not going to be 32.”
The statement proved prescient. Following a historic, statewide campaign that recruited 27,000 volunteers, raised more than $13 million in contributions and seemingly covered the state in orange “Vote No” yard signs and T-shirts, Minnesota voters defeated the proposed constitutional amendment by roughly 75,000 votes. It was part of a national wave that suggests a cultural turning point on the divisive issue. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington all backed ballot measures legalizing same-sex marriages.
But that doesn’t mean that the outcome in Minnesota was a fait accompli all along. Polls in the weeks leading up to Election Day consistently showed the referendum to be a statistical dead heat. However, previous referendums had shown a curious pattern in polling on the divisive issue: Surveys consistently under-represented support for gay marriage bans by about 7 percentage points.
Greg Lewis, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied opinions about gay marriage extensively, tabulated opposition to the ban in Minnesota at 49.9 percent. “I thought it was going to be right at 50-50,” Lewis said. “The ballot initiative did worse than I was expecting.”
It’s impossible to say with any certainty how much of that outcome was attributable to the campaign put together by Minnesotans United for All Families. But political observers of all stripes give high marks to the grass-roots operation put together by campaign manager Richard Carlbom and chair Cristine Almeida.
Dibble says it was precisely what he hoped for when addressing the crowd outside the House chamber 18 months earlier. “Exactly what we envisioned that night is exactly what’s happened,” Dibble said on election night. “I think we’re writing the book on how to do broad-based, coalition campaigns like this.”
Spectacular failure for photo ID
While rapidly changing public perceptions suggested that the gay marriage ban could be defeated, there was little such optimism regarding the proposal to require voters to show photo identification. A poll conducted by the Star Tribune in May 2011 found support for the measure at 80 percent. As late as September, polling still showed support for the proposal running at a 2-to-1 margin. Not surprisingly given those numbers, few politicians spent any political capital on opposing the amendment.
But a grass-roots coalition of organizations — many of them nonprofit groups excluded from engaging in partisan campaigns — banded together to foment opposition under the moniker Our Vote Our Future. The League of Women Voters, TakeAction Minnesota, the AARP and the Service Employees International Union were among the key players in the organization. They raised less than a quarter as much money as their counterparts battling the gay marriage amendment. But they were able to tap in-kind contributions of staff time and expertise from the various organizations assisting in the cause.
In the final push toward Election Day, opponents of the ballot measure were making up to 20,000 calls an hour. In the closing days of an election, the focus is typically on turning out voters that the campaign is pretty certain will back its candidate or cause in the booth. But Our Vote Our Future continued making persuasion calls to likely voters right up until the polls closed. Field staff estimated that they were turning 20 percent of individuals that they engaged in conversation on the phone. The mantra among the amendment’s opponents was that support for the proposal was a “mile wide, but a millimeter deep.”
Our Vote Our Future successfully raised concerns about costs that local governments would incur and how such a requirement would affect military personnel posted overseas, rural voters who cast their ballots by mail, and the elderly and disabled. More than 60 newspaper editorial boards came out in opposition to the amendment. A key television commercial featuring DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson was viewed as particularly effective in cutting through the partisan clutter of the run-up to Election Day. Each successive poll showed support for the ballot referendum plummeting. Ultimately less than 47 percent of voters backed the measure.
“We got our best poll on election night, which is exactly what you want,” said Greta Bergstrom, communications director for TakeAction Minnesota.
Opponents of the photo ID measure were undoubtedly assisted by the lack of a credible campaign from the proposal’s supporters. The main pro-amendment group, Protect My Vote, raised less than $1.5 million, with almost all of that money coming from conservative mega-donors Robert and Joan Cummins. The group’s chief strategy seemed to be handing out yard signs at gas stations.
But that doesn’t take away from Our Vote Our Future’s victory in what many viewed as a Sisyphean fight. “I don’t know if it’s naivete. I guess I never really felt like it was futile,” said Doran Schrantz, executive director of the faith-based group ISAIAH, which also played a key role in the campaign. “We decided fairly early on, no matter what the polls said, we were going to throw in. It felt like the right fight.”