On May 8, more than 2.1 million North Carolinians weighed in on Amendment One, a constitutional amendment that would add to the state’s existing 1996 ban on gay marriage by outlawing civil unions and providing legal recognition solely to heterosexual married couples. The new definition could eliminate domestic partner benefits for both gay and straight public employees.
For many political observers, the outcome of the vote went past party lines and spoke to major differences in opinion between urban and rural, and older and younger, lines. Despite major polling that suggested a wide margin of passage for the amendment, the election saw less support for the amendment than have other similar initiatives across the South. In fact, the number of voters supporting the amendmentó61 percent—was the second lowest, after Virginia, among similar elections.
For Jeremy Kennedy, a paid campaign manager for the Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, more time and resources would have resulted in more opposition to the amendment.
Kennedy came to the Tarheel State in November 2011 from Maine, where he had unsuccessfully campaigned against a referendum to overturn a law permitting same-sex marriage. North Carolina, a state with a much larger, more evangelical Christian population, would prove to be a more challenging fight.
“We knew it was going to be an uphill battle from the very beginning,” Kennedy said.
The Road to the Ballot
That North Carolina became the last Southern state to consider a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions was a result of many years of Democratic control of the state legislature. Although North Carolina had already outlawed gay marriage in 1996, conservatives had attempted to introduce a constitutional amendment in response to a wave of referendums introduced across the country beginning in 2004.
Some amendment opponents questioned the motives behind putting the measure on a 2012 primary ballot with only a competitive GOP race, but placing the amendment on the primary was actually not the goal of the movement’s initial proponents. Republican sponsors initially wanted the referendum placed on the November general election ballot, similar to marriage amendments passed across the country. Doing so would help draw conservative voters to the polls, noted John Dinan, professor of political science at Wake Forest University. But with the GOP lacking a three-fifths majority in the N.C. House of Representatives, they were forced to compromise with their Democratic counterparts, 10 of whom voted “yes” in the final stage.
Democrats were actually fearful that the amendment would bring out more conservative voters in a general election ballot, hurting their candidates in more competitive races. “This was one of the more misunderstood things about the whole process,” Dinan said. “There were enough Democrats who said, ‘Look, I’m willing to put this on the ballot because I’m feeling enough pressure from my constituents, but the only way I will vote for it is if you put it on the primary ballot.’”
With the amendment formally placed on the primary ballot in late September 2011 by the North Carolina General Assembly, CPNCF, a partnership among the North Carolina chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina as well as other groups, coalesced that October.
Framing a Campaign
Kennedy set a campaign budget around approximately $3 million, but noted that CPNCF planned for lower spending levels. By the end of the process, the group had raised and spent approximately $2.9 million, with 70 percent of the funds generated from within the state. By contrast, Vote for Marriage NC, the largest group supporting the amendment, spent roughly $1.5 million.
Around two-thirds of the funds CPNCF received came within the last two months of the campaign, Kennedy noted. The 11,000 total donors brought the average gift for CPNCF to approximately $263, while three donors provided approximately 75 percent of the funding for Vote for Marriage NC.
“We had a few big donors that wrote $100,000 checks, but mostly our support came from smaller donors,” he said. “The fact that we were able to raise the money is why we were able to come out with better results than we thought.”
The money funded different planks of the campaign, including television ads and field staff in certain locations throughout the state.
“But in a state like North Carolina, $3 million isn’t enough to close the gap that we were looking at,” Kennedy said. “It would have been better to have more resources early, because we would have been able to make more strategic decisions.”
But with the type of debate in North Carolina, even $10 million may not have been enough to close the gap in public opinion facing the opposition, said Michael Munger, professor of political science and the Libertarian candidate for N.C. governor in 2008.
“The way that money matters in politics is if people have not yet made up their minds,” Munger said. “It matters for candidates, but for an issue like marriage... people had made up their minds.”
Although Munger was an opponent of the amendment, he said that he was able to have candid dialogue with amendment supporters who did not consider themselves homophobic but had a firm stance on their own definition of marriage. The language of the opposition movement, however, may have further alienated voters in the state.
“I lost a friend on our side because I said, ‘It’s reasonable that someone could be for this amendment,’” he recalled. “She just screamed ‘No, anyone who is for this amendment is a homophobe.’”
But Kennedy said CPNCF centered its message around the idea that North Carolina had already banned gay marriage. Amendment One, in trying to outlaw civil unions, would inflict collateral damage on many heterosexual couples and children. In the process, many people who would have otherwise voted for the amendment changed their minds by May 8, Kennedy noted.
“In the beginning, a lot of people thought it was a vote about gay marriage, but it absolutely was not,” Kennedy said, “Many people told us, ‘We’re not comfortable with gay marriage, but we think gay and lesbian couples should have domestic partner benefits.’”
Nonetheless, Kennedy said many conservative Christians in the state believed their religious interpretation of the Bible justified a strong stance in support of the amendment.
“We would ask people, ‘Even if you think being gay is a sin, do you think it’s OK to use the constitution to take health care away from children?’” Kennedy said. “We’re not trying to change people’s minds about gays and lesbians. That’s a long conversation and... that’s not the argument we were able to have in this campaign.’”
CPNCF employed TV ads, but the campaign’s limited financial resources meant that it could not sustain a widespread TV campaign across the state, said Stuart Price, executive director of Equality NC, another group fighting the amendment Instead, CPNCF strived to maintain a significant presence through social media and a YouTube channel.
Nation Hahn, senior online strategist for CPNCF, noted that although many older voters may not use the Internet enough to engage with the online campaign, social media efforts spawned coverage that worked in the opposition’s favor, citing a video recorded by Russell and Sally Robinson, Law ‘56 and Women’s College ‘55, respectively. As prominent Republicans, the Robinsons were unlikely opponents of the amendment, and the video led to news articles in Charlotte area newspapers and likely prompted other prominent individuals in the area to voice their opposition, Hahn said.
“An online presence isn’t just about what happens online,” he added. “With online content, you want to achieve sharing. My grandmother may not be on Facebook, but she checks her email everyday, and people will share many of these things there, as well.”
Minding the Gap
The number of older, socially conservative Democrats in the state meant that the vote did not necessarily fall along party lines, Kennedy noted. The bigger divide likely came between older and younger voters; urban and rural areas; and educated and uneducated populations. In fact, the eight counties that voted against the amendment closely mirrored the distribution of CPNCF’s organization, which retained full-time organizers in counties home to the Triangle, Charlotte, Asheville and major college towns. A local newspaper in Greensboro noted how the signs and posters about the amendment evolved from opposition to support along the route from the city to its more rural outskirts, Dinan recalled.
This urban-rural gap may have flawed the perceptions of many on Duke’s campus, Munger said, noting that many faculty members still believed it would fail to pass despite polls showing the amendment leading by a 20-point margin.
Munger refers to this phenomenon as “Pauline Kael syndrome.” Kael, a film critic for The New Yorker and a political liberal, is reported to have said in 1972 that she couldn’t believe Richard Nixon had won the election because no one she knew voted for him.
Despite their disappointment, Kennedy and Price said the opposition campaign narrowed the gap and brought out 800,000 ballots against Amendment One in spite of a non-competitive primary election. The primary yielded the highest turnout in state electoral history after the 2008 Democratic nomination contest.
“As heartbreaking as the outcome was, we can take comfort in the fact that so many non-traditional allies stepped forward to voice their opposition,” Price said. “Even [N.C. Speaker of the House] Thom Tillis, who supported the amendment, has said he thinks it will be repealed in 20 years.”
But as long as the amendment remains a part of the state constitution, domestic partner benefits will remain up in the air for a number of state employees. Large private entities, including Duke, have reiterated their commitment to providing same-sex partner benefits. The UNC system, along with Durham and Orange counties, have also stated that they will maintain existing benefits for same-sex couples. But public entities and local governments are more vulnerable to legal challenges stemming from the amendment, Munger noted. The question is whether it would be constitutional for them to [maintain benefits],” he said. “They might word it in such a way that they avoid legality, but the legislature may punish them for doing that.”
The Charlotte City Council, for example, voted to evaluate the legality of same-sex partner benefits before including them in its 2013 budget.
“We will certainly be working with employers and encourage them to not just arbitrarily cut off benefits,” Price added. “We will also be lobbying the legislature, and working with groups like the ACLU to keep a close eye on the impact. So far, fortunately, we haven’t seen that.”