For years, the Washington State legislature has considered, and ultimately pushed aside, a bill that would allow same-sex marriage. It wasn't just that the bill introduced by State Senator Ed Murray (D-43) would have been difficult to pass, particularly in the senate. More than that, the Democratic LGBT caucus knew that even if lawmakers had the votes, evangelicals would run a referendum to send their bill to the ballot—where poll after poll said voters would reject same-sex marriage. No sense in passing a bill in Olympia, the thinking went, only to lose on election day.
But that thinking changed yesterday. A statewide poll by Strategies 360 found state voters approve gay marriage by a 54-35 margin. Women, men, Democrats, independents voters, racial minorities, white people, voters over 55, and voters under 55 all showed majority support (.pdf).
What's one poll mean?
Not much, arguably. But with the release of Strategy 360's poll brings confirmation of another poll of 600 state voters conducted from July 7-13 by Alison Peters Consulting and sponsored by Equal Rights Washington. The new poll and the July poll are "completely consistent," says ERW's newly positioned marriage equality director Josh Friedes, who couldn't release the exact numbers because it was conducted in concert with progressive coalition partners. "For the first time in Washington Sate, marriage equality is winnable if it’s on the ballot," he says. It's a milestone, but not unexpected. The majority support for marriage we see today fits within the context of other polling that has shown support for marriage equality climbing for the past several years. For instance, the Elway Poll found that support jumped from 37 percent to 43 percent from 2005 to 2009; the UW's Washington Poll showed combined support for marriage and domestic partnerships rights growing from 59 percent to 66 percent in the years 2006 to 2008. The natural aim of that trajectory—as the data point from latest polls seem to confirm—is that Friedes is right: Voters are ready to pass gay marriage in Washington State next year.
"Like the public, legislators are moving our direction," says state representative Laurie Jinkins (D-27) speculating on the session that begins in Olympia in January. "I can't tell you we absolutely have the votes for it," but she says that running a gay-marriage bill "seems worthwhile to me one way or the other during the legislative session." State Senator Murray has also says that 2012 is the right year for such a bill. Assuming it passes, Jinkins continues, "It will likely end up in front of the voters," adding that there's no better year than 2012, when Democratic turnout is strong for a presidential and gubernatorial elections. It's either 2012 or wait another four years.
Of course, this new constellation of political realities—the push for a bill in a Democratically ruled legislature, these latest polls, this progressive electorate—terrifies anti-gay pastor Gary Randall. He ran the campaign on Referendum 71 in 2009, losing only narrowly in his attempt to repeal domestic-partnership rights for same-sex couples.
“If the bill should pass," he wrote on his right-wing evangelical blog yesterday about a marriage bill, "we will take an appropriate initiative action to repeal it... Homosexual activists are demanding that you redefine marriage to accommodate their sexual behavior."
He indicated that organizing has already begun: "Faith and Freedom is incurring expenses in preparation for the gathering storm. We are surveying citizens across the state at this time. We are working with others of like mind to not only stand, but prevail in the coming assault on society's most fundamental cornerstone—marriage."
Randall's choice of words here—"the gathering storm"—implies exactly what gay-rights advocates fear most. A catch phrase deployed by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in ads that helped repeal marriage in California (the group donated $1.8 million) and Maine (NOM was the primary funder to repeal gay marriage in that state), the gathering storm ads exhibited NOM's ability to sweep into states and trigger irrational fears that gay marriage would rob Christians of their way of life. It was unrepentantly dishonesty, but, man, it was effective:
"We have to assume that NOM is going to come in big," says Friedes. "They have a talented team who knows how to exploit the public’s fear." Among NOM's more effective tactics is insisting that schools would be forced to teach about gay couples, require curriculum that promotes homosexuality, and tell clergy who they can and cannot marry. He calls it "just patently false."
In that vein, a battle over marriage in Washington next year would be fundamentally different from the domestic-partnership campaigning of 2009. Whereas religious leaders largely ignore domestic-partnership fights, they pour millions of dollars into marriage battles. The Mormon Church spent an estimated $20 million three years ago repealing same-sex marriage in California.
"We have to work under the operating assumption that the Mormon church and the Catholic church will vigorously oppose marriage equality in Washington State," Friedes says (he notes that many progressive clergy support gay marriage; it's the national churches and Roman Catholic Church that gets their robes in a twist). Already among local evangelicals, "Our opponents are clearly wigging out over what is happening. We are seeing an extraordinary number of alarming emails coming from them, particularly on raising money."
Is there a solution for gay-marriage advocates if they want to keep their slim majority at the polls next year?
There is a silver bullet, actually. But it's hard—nay, incredibly awkward—to fire the gun. Citing the one part of the Equal Rights Washington poll from July that could be released to the press, 69 percent of voters who report having talked to a gay friend about marriage equality support it. The number was nearly identical—66 percent—for people who had spoken to a straight friend about marriage equality. The poll found also that 22 percent of state voters have never talked to anyone about gay marriage.
Of the people who had only recently come around, 22 percent of voter acknowledge that their position had changed within the last five years (including the year thousands of voters had conversations about Referendum 71).
So if the poll is to be trusted, if marriage equality advocates want to win, they need to go have some seriously awkward conversations with grandmothers and aunts and coaches and people who haven't had these conversations.
"If they come out, talk to neighbors and coworkers, I am confident we will win," Rep. Jinkins says. "I make it sound easy; it’s quite complicated."
But the worst thing that happens for LGBT-rights advocates is that marriage goes to the ballot and loses—after thousands more of these conversations that inoculate voters against future scare tactics, after more voters hear stories about loving gay relationships that make people change their minds. So the worst thing that happens? Marriage equality gets closer, sooner.