Bolder Advocacy

How They Did It: The 2012 Marriage Equality Campaigns

“We don’t do this enough…Get together to celebrate victories,” said Human Rights Campaign’s National Field Director Marty Rouse when opening the recent event cosponsored by Alliance for Justice and HRC. In late May we brought the leaders of the 2012 marriage equality campaigns to D.C. to talk about their historic victories. Moderated by AFJ Executive Vice President Marissa Brown, the discussion offered many lessons for groups pursuing their own advocacy efforts–whether for marriage equality or other social justice causes.

Marriage Equality: Lessons from the 2012 State Victories from Alliance for Justice on

Watch the video — divided into 7 short chapters described below. Learn about coalitions, messaging, and other ingredients of a winning campaign.

Snapshots of Each Campaign: Wash., Minn. Maine, Maryland

Tony Wagner, Western Regional Field Director at HRC talks about the 2012 campaign when he was the Field Director for Washington United for Marriage.

Betsy Smith Executive Director of EqualityMaine, the lead organization in Mainers United for Marriagedescribes how they launched the first proactive ballot measure on marriage equality.

Carrie Evans, Executive Director of Equality Maryland, the lead organization in Marylanders for Marriage Equalitytalks about how they defied expectations and won.

Richard Carlbom, Campaign Manager, Minnesotans United for All Families, notes the importance of the “deeply relational” nature of the campaign in securing victory.

The Message of Love and Commitment

One of the hallmarks of the marriage campaigns in 2012 was the use of sophisticated messaging that shifted the frame of the debate over same-sex marriage from a focus on equal rights to love and commitment. The panelists agreed that the new message frame helped move swing and undecided voters.

Tony says it took some selling to convince activists to adopt this new frame, as they weren’t privy to the research.

Carrie discusses how they tailored their messaging to appeal to African-American voters, particularly women, who were looking for “permission to vote for Question 6.”

Rich describes how invoking values like freedom and the golden rule helped them win over Minnesotans.

L to R: Carrie Evans, Betsy Smith, AFJ's Marissa Brown, HRC's Marty Rouse, Rich Carlbom. (Tony Wagner not pictured)

L to R: Carrie, Betsy, AFJ’s Marissa Brown, HRC’s Marty Rouse, Rich (not pictured: Tony)

Worst Fear? “Waiting for the Shoe to Drop”

Everyone answers Marissa’s question: What kept you up at night? What was the nightmare you were most worried about at 2 a.m.? Sympathetic laughter ensues.

Questions from Audience

How do you pivot from a ballot measure campaign to a legislative campaign? How do you engage your supporters in issues that aren’t as personal as marriage?

Also read our blog post exploring the challenge of keeping supporters engaged as organizations move to other pressing priorities, like transgender discrimination.

Civil Rights and Messaging

How do these campaigns deal with the concerns about religious freedom related to same-sex marriage? Most laws around the country have some provision about clergy not being “forced” to perform these marriages.

Realizing “The Moment of Victory”

When did panelists really believe they were going to win? Betsy is the only person who says her campaign felt confident of the outcome from the get go. For Richard it was when everyone at the state fair wanted a “corn dog and a ‘Vote No’ bumper sticker.” In a must-watch moment, Carrie admits she didn’t believe they won until the last possible moment.

“While 2012 was a wonderful, wonderful success, there is still a lot of work to do,” said Marty in his opening remarks. We hope the experiences shared by the seasoned advocates on our panel will inform and inspire future campaigns.