Michigan Battle Is Winnable

Polls Conflict, But Gallup Finds Majority Opposed To Ban On Gay Marriage

Voters in eleven states, including crucial battlegrounds in the presidential contest, will go to the polls this Election Day to decide on state constitutional amendments that seek to ban same-sex marriages.

Thus far, much of the national gay and lesbian community’s attention, and a good deal of its money, have been focused on defeating the anti-same-sex marriage ballot initiative in Oregon.

However, a recent Gallup poll in Michigan revealed the surprising result that, by a majority of 51-44 percent, registered voters oppose the state’s proposed anti-same-sex marriage amendment.

Another poll, conducted by the Michigan-based research firm EPIC MRA, found a precipitous six percent drop in support for the amendment in the last month—contrary to the polls in Oregon, where anti-gay forces continue to hold a slight edge, though given the margin of error in the polls taken, the battle there essentially is in a statistical dead heat.

“Michigan looks extremely promising,” said Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF).

That good news has encouraged Wendy Howell, campaign manager for Coalition for a Fair Michigan, the group fighting the effort to amend the state’s constitution, to take a proactive stance.

“This presents an opportunity for the community to win in the heartland, in a blue-collar swing state,” Howell said. “It would be inexcusable to let that opportunity slip through our fingers.” Everybody is talking about Oregon, but given the same level of attention and resources, Michigan represents the same level of possibility.”

In order to win, Howell acknowledges that the amendment’s opposition needs money, especially for TV ads in a fairly expensive media market. So far, Howell has put together an impressive statewide organization that includes six regional offices, ten field staffers and 2,000 volunteers who manage phone banks, canvass neighborhoods, book speakers and throw fund-raising parties. Yet, with less than a quarter million dollars raised, primarily through small donations, Howell estimates the effort needs at least another $1 million.

“To win, we need to be up on TV,” she noted.

Seth Kilborn, the national field director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), estimated an ideal figure at twice that, but called Howell’s figure “credible and viable.”

The NGLTF has kicked in $20,000 and pledged another $20,000, and HRC has given $20,000 as well. Howell hopes the polling data out of Michigan will generate interest among potential donors.

“We’ve been reluctant to dump a whole lot of money into a campaign until there is evidence that they have a chance of succeeding.” explained Kilborn. “Michigan has shown through polling and other efforts that there is good news and we should pay attention to it, and we are.”

Nonetheless, Kilborn admits that HRC will not be able to contribute funds to Michigan—or any other state—on the same scale that it gave to Oregon, into which it poured nearly $140, 000. Similarly, NGLTF continues to actively fund-raise, and through its “Save Our States” campaign has thus far raised more than $1 million dollars to give directly to state organizations battling anti-gay marriage amendments.

Half of that money has already gone to the effort in Oregon.

“We made our decision about Oregon based on a whole set of criteria,” said Foreman, “and we had to make that decision early on. That kind of decision cannot be premised on a poll. The situation is fluid in many states, and we are working with all of them to help them win as well.”

The fluidity Foreman and others see in the states considering anti-gay amendments could account for why as recently as last week, Dave Fleischer, NGLTF’s director of organizing and training, called Kentucky the community’s “second-best chance to win.” The Task Force has given “No On the Amendment,” Kentucky’s anti-amendment initiative, a total of $70,000.

This week, The New York Times published a story which quoted Fleischer and Kilborn extensively, and suggested that the effort to halt the move toward anti-gay amendments was hurtling toward “a last stand in Oregon.” That article indicated that a Courier-Journal poll in Kentucky found nearly three quarters of voters there in support of that state’s proposed amendment.

“I care much less about what the national organizations bring to the table in terms of their own resources,” Howell remarked. “They need to signal the major level national donors across this country that there are several winnable fights, and that Michigan is a place they should invest in.”

It is more difficult to get a handle on the finance’s of the groups supporting the Michigan amendment. There are several groups registered with the state to promote Amendment 2, as the ballot initiative there is known and ballot initiative groups are not required to report on their funding until October 22.

Bolstering Michigan’s polling data is labor union opposition to the amendment. The language of the amendment takes aim not only at same-sex marriage, but also other forms of sanctioned partnerships.

“It goes beyond the marriage issue,” said Al Short, director of government affairs for the Michigan Education Association, which represents both educators and blue-collar workers at public schools and universities. “This amendment interferes with the collective bargaining process of public employees. It prevents an employer from providing health insurance benefits to domestic partners. If this thing passes, it wipes out those existing agreements.”

Unions are a major force to reckon with in Michigan, where 43 percent of registered voters come from union households, as opposed to only 26 percent nationally, according to an ABC exit poll in the 2000 presidential election.

In addition to the usual coalition of gay supporters, including religious denominations like Unitarians and Quakers, as well as women’s and abortion rights groups, the Coalition for a Fair Michigan has racked up the endorsements of the AFL-CIO, the state’s major newspapers, and the Michigan Education Association, its second-largest labor union.

“We are lobbying hard for, and are reasonably confident about, the endorsement of all the state’s labor unions,” said Howell, indicating that the United Auto Workers might also join the coalition.

Meanwhile, Kilborn and Foreman said they are monitoring Ohio’s amendment initiative, where polls indicate that voters favor banning same-sex marriage. Both agree that Oregon is where same-sex marriage proponents have the best shot at defeating an amendment. Both praised the strong organizations poised to do the same is in Kentucky and Utah, although the polling data from those two states does not currently look favorable, according to Kilborn. Missouri and Louisiana recently passed amendments banning same-sex marriage.

With many more defeats than victories expected in the 11 states voting on the matter on November 2, gay rights leaders are taking the long view.

NGLTF’s Fleischer said, “I’m very optimistic about how this is going to work out over a several-year period. Some campaigns are being well-waged, and we’re learning a lot about how to win over the hearts and minds of the American people.”

The Michigan Gallup poll, conducted September 10–13, surveyed 829 registered voters by telephone. Five expressed no opinion. While those 35 and older polled nearly identically for and against the ban, of those 18–34, 61 percent were opposed to the ban, while only 36 percent favored it. While men were essentially evenly split on the issue, women were much more likely to oppose the proposal. with 53 percent against it, and 40 percent in favor. The poll’s sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The EPIC MRA survey was given to 610 people from September 15–19, and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. It showed a recent decline in support for the amendment from 60 percent to 54 percent.

Another poll of 600 registered voters conducted September 20–24 by the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group for the newsletter “Inside Michigan Politics” was released on September 28. It showed 61 percent of respondents supporting the amendment, 33 percent opposed, and 6 percent undecided, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, according to the Associated Press. However, 50 percent of the respondents were 55 or older; and 47 percent described themselves as politically conservative.

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