Opponents of Prop 8 were slow to respond. When they did, it was with rebuttal ads insisting that the education-based attacks were dishonest and that education would not be affected by legal gay marriage. What happened next Schubert would later regard as his biggest break of the election. As he described it, "In what may prove to be the most ill-considered publicity stunt ever mounted in an initiative campaign, a public school in San Francisco took a class of first-graders to City Hall to witness the wedding of their lesbian teacher. And they brought along the media."
The threat to children was no longer hypothetical. Immediately, the pro-Prop 8 campaign had an ad on statewide television "showing bewildered 6-year-olds at a lesbian wedding courtesy of their local public school," as Schubert put it.
In the days before the election, Prop 8's opponents tried to change the subject to civil rights. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein narrated an ad calling on voters to oppose discrimination and protect gay marriage. In another, Samuel L. Jackson compared outlawing gay marriage to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. "We decided to not respond to this line of attack, confident that it would backfire," Schubert wrote in his article. "The basic message that supporters of traditional marriage are bigots, guilty of discrimination, had never worked in focus groups. For liberal whites like Feinstein to lecture black Californians about discrimination was not a winning message."
In the final count, Proposition 8 prevailed by a 52-48 margin, buoyed by the support of majorities of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. In Schubert's telling, it was the story of a well-executed strategy succeeding. "The Prop 8 victory proves something that readers of [this] magazine know very well," Schubert wrote: "Campaigns matter."
For gay-marriage proponents, the defeat was stunning. They'd had as much money as their opponents and the most favorable conditions imaginable, yet they'd lost decisively. Recriminations flew; some despaired; others wanted to start campaigning again right away and put the issue back on the ballot in 2010.
As Amy Simon, the San Francisco-based pollster, watched the Prop 8 fight from the sidelines, it was clear to her that something had to change. Simon's research often focuses on emotionally complex social issues such as late-term abortion and euthanasia. She could tell from watching the Prop 8 campaign that the opponents of gay marriage were hitting voters in the heart and the gut while supporters tried in vain to appeal to their heads. "It was so painful to watch," she said. "After the election was over, I was calling everyone I knew, saying, 'Let me in. We can do this.'"
Simon cobbled together funding from a variety of foundations and advocacy groups. She conducted 25 focus groups and a detailed, 2,000-interview survey across California in 2009, trying to pin down the underlying emotional dynamics that were driving the voters who were "in the middle" on gay marriage. A wide swath, as much as 40 percent of the electorate, was neither absolutely in favor nor absolutely opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage.
Simon's sessions could be wrenching. A participant in one focus group had been screened as a soft opponent of gay marriage, yet she spent half an hour sounding very supportive. She talked enthusiastically about her affection for the gay people in her daily life, including gay coworkers and a lesbian sister-in-law. "Finally, I said to her, 'When we called you, you said you were undecided or leaning against [gay marriage]. Did we make a mistake?'" Simon recalled. "She looked at me and she stopped, and she said, 'No, no, no.' Then she started crying, and she said, 'I want to be for this. But I'm afraid I'm going to burn in hell.' "
Simon found that many voters were struggling as painfully as that woman with the issue of gay marriage. Their "undecided" status didn't come from a lack of feelings on the issue. They were powerfully conflicted, caught between two deep-seated sentiments: On the one hand, a desire to be fair and compassionate toward others; on the other, a loyalty to what they saw as the ironclad teachings of religion, tradition, or culture.
"These were not mean people, not bigots, not bad people," said Thalia Zepatos, who, as Freedom to Marry's director of public engagement, spent 2010 synthesizing a massive amount of marriage-related research -- collating nearly 100 surveys, studies, exit polls, and focus groups from every state that had considered the issue, including new research that the group commissioned. "As long as they'd ever thought about marriage, they'd had a certain image of what it meant, and now all of a sudden we were asking them to expand that," she said. "They had questions that deserved to be answered."
In survey after survey, researchers would ask people what marriage meant to them -- not gay marriage, but the concept of marriage itself. And the answers were always the same: Marriage meant love and commitment. Even people who'd been divorced three times would say the same thing. Then the researchers would ask, "Why do you think gay people want to get married?" and the answers would change: They want rights and benefits. They're trying to make a political point. They don't understand what marriage is really about. Most commonly, respondents said they simply didn't know.