The colossal failure of National Organization for Marriage

By Scott Wooledge

Tuesday was great. After the bittersweet result of 2008 election with the joy of Obama's win being mitigated by the passage of Prop 8, 2012 was just a flat-out incredible night for the LGBT community. From the top of the ticket, to the smallest local races, conventional wisdom that gay is political kryptonite can finally be set out on the curb for pick up.

In the biggest race of the night, the gay friendliest president ever handily won reelection. Just a year ago it was very widely believed that a marriage equality supportive candidate could not win the swing states. And then, President Obama and his team bet against that and publicly endorsed the idea, and then went on to sweep all the swing states.

Come January, we'll have our first out LGB United States senator. The House will have at least six LGBT members including a second gay dad and the first gay person of color. In Colorado, an out gay man will serve as House Speaker, and a lesbian will be Senate pro-tem, the number two position in that chamber. Hundreds of out members of the gay community won in state and local races, including Stacie Laughton who in contrast to Obama's 58M-some, garnered just 1,588 votes but in New Hampshire that's enough to send her to the state House where she will be the first open transgender to serve.

"This wasn't incremental progress. This was a breathtaking leap forward," said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, dedicated to electing out politicians.

With the defeat of Minnesota's ban on marriage equality and a resurgent Democratic majority, talk has already turned to moving forward legislatively with marriage equality there. Conservatives may rue they picked that fight last year and activated a community, and their network of friends and family, to fight back.

But let's pause and reflect that rarely has a political movement, organization or candidate for all their spending and efforts emerged with so much egg on their face as National Organization for Marriage (NOM) did this cycle. Calling this "The Marriage Election," they tried their best, up and down the ticket to make it a national referendum on gay people's right to marry. It was, of course, very literally a referendum on LGBT people's right to marry in four states, all four opposition campaigns NOM largely funded and controlled and all of which NOM lost.

But NOM's ambition was bigger than just the ballot initiatives, and they may have bitten off more than they could chew.

They sought to punish the four marriage equality supportive Republicans in the New York senate and had at best mixed results. One retired, one was reelected, one lost in a primary, and one lost in the general—to a Democrat who supports marriage equality "without hesitation" in his own words. So, it's unclear how that helps them, or proves their point voters hate gay-friendly politicians. Moreover, if they take credit for Republican Sen. Saland's defeat, we can also thank them for finally swaying the New York state Senate back into Democratic control, a rarity in that state. So thanks for that, and good luck on your fanciful New York repeal plan, now that you've helped the LGBT community and their allies return control both state chambers to Democrats again.

They attempted to unseat an Iowa Supreme Court Justice that ruled for marriage equality there, but again, the tactic that succeeded in the past failed in 2012 and Justice Wiggins was retained. This despite NOM spending $465,000 to unseat him.

Let us not forget the spectacular almost two to one defeat of NOM's effort to repeal marriage equality in the New Hampshire House in March of 2012. Despite a chamber that was about 75 percent Republican, not only did they fail to persaude a majority of the chamber, they failed to get a majority of Republicans. The 2012 election results prove New Hampshire was no anomaly, it was the harbinger of a trend. NOM spent a lot in the GOP presidential primary, but Mitt Romney surely wasn't their first pick, over favorites Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann, nor did their attacks on Ron Paul probably have much influence. They tried their best to go after the president as the enemy of marriage. Above their Facebook cover photo that repeated the call to supporters to see this as "The Marriage Election." (I may have Photoshopped it a little.)

After setting up that frame that this whole election is about "protecting marriage," like any good conservatives having lost, they will surely find some reason to spin why their very definitive loss "didn't count." It wasn't really all about marriage, and we didn't really lose a fair and legitimate debate of that point. It was the hurricane, or something.

But NOM lost. They just lost. Two sides came to the table, made their arguments to the voters and the better argument won. The response could not have been more clear.

And NOM and their crowd lost.

And they lost a lot.

The political implications

In the wake of their loss, they're going to have to re-think their favorite argument, their most odious tactic and retire their favorite talking point. The argument: The threadbare message that gay marriage will compel sodomy instruction in the public schools is no longer their silver bullet. The argument that won the day in Prop 8 has run out of gas. It was the heart of the argument in all four marriage equality states. They may turn up the volume, but it will only serve to make them look more unhinged from reality. They are really faced with starting from scratch in the future, but the cupboard is bare.

Odious tactic: National Organization for Marriage was famously exposed earlier this year as seeking to cynically "fan the flames" of racial hostilities to further their political aims. And there was much evidence they tried to execute their plan, but it failed not only to deliver results, but it failed to even resonate much in the battle states. This is thanks to many in the people of color communities from the President, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza on down to countless local leaders who answered the call for unity. It is a credit—and benefit—to our nation in that they failed to divide us.

The talking point: Having lost the battle against marriage equality in the pop culture, in the legislatures, and in the courts, they have relied on the tyranny of the mob to provide them with credibility, repeating ad nauseum that "the people always vote against it."

No more. And by no means a fluke, it was definitive. They've been saying the decisive trends in polls showing changing attitudes are biased and wrong. Well, now the only poll that matters is apparently biased and wrong too.

All this has far-reaching implications because the anti-marriage equality movement, unlike the equality movement, is not a grassroots, bottom-up movement. It is very much an astro-turfed, top-down hierarchy with National Organization for Marriage calling the shots.

The LGBT campaigns of late, are largely driven in-state. The national orgs like Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry provide invaluable advisory roles and the occasional in-kind staffer. But the campaigns themselves, particularly this cycle, maintain autonomy on strategy and messaging, trusting locals to make their own calls on what will resonate in their own state, and what constituencies and terrains to work, and how. And though these campaigns do receive national donations from orgs and individuals, they all receive the bulk of their donations from small in-state donors.

Not so with the "protect marriage" campaigns.

Most of the messaging and strategy flow from NOM. Some campaigns count National Organization for Marriage for as much as 50 percent or more of their operating budget.

They will hire a local to serve as titular head. In Washington they picked Joseph Backholm as campaign chair. But in reality all along they are just astroturfed shell campaigns, run by National Organization for Marriage and their hired gun, Frank Schubert.

Laurel Ramseyer at Pam's House Blend cleverly picked up such an admission coming from Preserve Marriage Washington's own concession statement released Thursday:

“Our opponents and some in the media will try to portray this election as a turning point, but it’s not a turning point to win on your home turf.”

Indeed, a very odd choice of words for Preserve Marriage Washington to make. They had been assuring everyone that they were an organic grassroots movement of concerned Washingtonians—despite all evidence to the contrary. Now, having lost, they say it's because Preserve Marriage Washington was disadvantaged playing an away game?

Specific examples here cite the Washington campaign, but very similar dynamics played out in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota. Witness that all four state opposition campaigns had carbon copy websites and used virtually the same ad:

They didn't even bother to tailor the ad to the state, and used spokespeople who were out-of-staters for every single state in contention. All the equality campaigns cast locals who spoke to specific local values.

The messaging and strategy for the opposition campaign is all the brainchild of Frank Schubert. He's been riding high since producing virtually the same ad to launch a surprise attack in the Prop 8 battle persuading "even Californians" to vote down marriage equality. Can this one-trick pony learn a new trick? His star is falling as fast as Karl Rove's. Will Frank Schubert continue to be seen as political genius, having bet all NOM's chips on a single strategy that failed in four states? If he is a genius, he saved some of that $3M he made this cycle. He's already showing the stress, having crumbled under questioning on Michelangelo Signorile's radio show just days before the votes.

The fundraising implications

National Organization for Marriage often provides the lion's share of funding for state anti-equality campaigns. But it isn't from small, grassroots donors. One of NOM's post-thumping talking points is that they were outspent, which is true, and a relatively new phenomena in this battle. In Washington state, the United campaign raised around $11.3M to Preserve Marriage Washington's measly $2.1M. But, a closer examination shows why.

Preserve Marriage Washington reports just over 5,500 donors, according state of Washington records. And though equality opponents would like to you to imagine there is a tiny gang of fabulously wealthy homosexuals who left their Hollywood orgies just long enough to drop a check into battle ground states, we have empirical evidence this is just not the case.

Preserve Marriage Washington reports just over 5,500 donors, according state of Washington records. And though equality opponents would like to you to imagine there is a tiny gang of fabulously wealthy homosexuals who left their Hollywood orgies just long enough to drop a check into battle ground states, we have empirical evidence this is just not the case.

Washington United campaign had almost five times as many individual donors, more than 27,000, mostly in-state.

It isn't that NOM and Preserve Marriage Washington weren't desperately pushing out daily hyperbolic fundraising pleas warning of the coming marriage apocalypse.

Their incessant pleas just failed to attract many actual donors.

And the side that can raise a million dollars from a million people is always better situated than the side that can raise a million dollars from one person.

So, once again, the election results are explained not by a nefarious secret plot but with simple arithmetic: five times as many people opened their wallet to support the freedom to marry than those who did so to deny it. (And pretty surely not all them were "radical activist homosexuals," we know who you are straight allies, thank you.)

And they can pay Lithuanians to "Like" them on Facebook to give the appearance of popularity, but can't buy themselves donors and that didn't help them on election day.

Very little is actually known about where NOM's money actually comes from, they are notoriously secret about their donor lists, even if it requires them to break state campaign disclosure laws to do so, which they have done many times in many states, resulting in investigations and reprimands. This cycle promises to be no different.

What we do know from federal filings is they get the overwhelming majority of it from just a small handful of very rich people giving very large donations, whose anonymity NOM guards like the recipe to Coke.

There's a simple rule in politics: Winning attracts donors. Losing repels them. And it's one rule that's true. It remains to be seen if NOM's pet millionaire and billionaire (?) benefactors will continue to throw good money after bad merely to slow the inevitable, as the trendlines make clear. Or will they just make peace with their coming defeat? Consider, too, that the smart money is betting that in the next year the Defense of Marriage act falls at the Supreme Court and marriage equality will return to California. Fundraising was getting tough when they were winning. Do their donors care enough to keep throwing money into the pit? Of course, political spending is not necessarily a rational decision. Many of the one percenters who went after President Obama this cycle enjoyed some of their most prosperous years under his administration.

And no one should imagine that homophobia will not continue to drive political movement, obviously, just as racism and sexism are driving forces still. We're no more "post-gay" than we are "post-racial" or "post-sexist." And not only is NOM not going away, they've always been there. They are merely the 1980s "Moral Majority" with a few more focus groups under their belt, a new front team and a slicker logo. NOM Chairwoman Maggie Gallagher also fronts a group with the hilariously antiquated name of The Culture War Victory Fund. Like a lost Japanese soldier wandering the South Pacific, she apparently hasn't gotten the memo the Culture War is over and the hippies won.

But NOM can only emerge from Tuesday seriously politically marginalized as an unpopular, outdated, special interest group. And most importantly, ineffective: Even before their usual 11th hour money dump has been fully reported, NOM easily spent more than $6M in the 2012. And what do they have to show for it? They took out one Republican state senator, and helped the New York Democratic party replace another winning a majority.

Oh. And failed boycotts of Starbucks and General Mills.

GOP hopefuls who pandered to—or represent—the religious conservatives found out on Tuesday that was a losing bet. It didn't work out for Mitt Romney, nor for Tommy Thompson, nor for Todd Akin and nor for Richard Murdock. (Note, these states I'm referencing do not have reputations as the cutting edge of progressive electorates in the nation.)

After a long night of radio silence, the usually chatty NOM finally released a statement essentially saying their losses were merely a flesh wound.

But the electoral reality has finally squared with the experiential reality of Americans.

And NOM can't obfuscate or spin away from the fact that in the 2012 elections nationwide voters sent a very clear message to their political leaders: Gay is okay.

The Dailykos

And this guy is running the World Congress of Families now?