Why Minnesota Succeeded While Wisconsin Failed On Marriage Equality

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Story by Michael McIntee, Executive Producer

Minnesota and Wisconsin are like political fraternal twins. The neighboring states both have a history of progressive politics. Minnesotans and Wisconsinites have voted the same way in the last seven presidential elections, share a common heritage and have nearly the same number of residents. But the two states couldn’t be more different today when it comes to the issue of marriage equality.

Counties in Minnesota just issued 1,640 same-sex marriage licenses in August after rejecting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage last November. Wisconsin won’t be issuing any same-sex marriage licenses in the near future: It has a six-year-old constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that could take years to change.

In both states, when the constitutional ban against same-sex marriage was proposed, public opinion polls showed a ban was a winning issue with voters. Republicans in both states viewed the ballot issue as a way to drive conservative voters to the polls and help increase their majorities in the legislature. Both states had pro-gay rights, liberal governors in charge. In both states, those opposing the amendment vastly outspent those supporting a ban.

The situation, the politics, the demographics of the two states were similar. Yet the outcome was very different. Why?

Two reasons: Timing and messaging.

Wisconsin went first

Public opinion was very different in 2004, when Wisconsin began its process of putting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot. That year, Republicans had succeeded in driving up voter turnout in Ohio by putting an amendment banning same-sex marriage on the general election ballot. Ohio’s amendment passed by a large margin; that was a contributing factor to George W. Bush winning the state, and ultimately his re-election as President.

Republicans decided to duplicate the strategy in other states. Wisconsin already had its amendment in motion, gaining approval of the Republican majority legislature in March 2004. Wisconsin joined eight other states in 2006 by putting an amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the ballot.

Conservatives may have initiated the fight in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but they were badly outgunned when it came to money. In those nine states, $18 million was spent on the issue. Opponents of the same-sex marriage bans collected and spent nearly three times as much as their conservative opponents. In Wisconsin, that margin was even wider – with opponents of the ban spending six times more than supporters.

Yet despite the money on their side, opponents lost in Wisconsin by a wide 59 percent to 41 percent margin. The only consolation: Margins were even wider in most other states with the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot. Only Arizona defeated the ban. The other eight states passed it.

As you might expect, Wisconsin Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly supported the same-sex marriage ban. But that’s not enough to win elections in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin exit poll found the ban also had the support of more than one in three people who voted to re-elect Democrat Jim Doyle for Governor; a majority of moderates supported it. Large numbers of blacks and working-class whites who voted democratic voted to ban same-sex marriage. In Milwaukee, African-American wards that voted 95% Democratic for governor supported the amendment – some by margins of 20 to 30 points. Whites with a high-school-only education voted for the ban by overwhelming margins.

The wrong message

According to Fair Wisconsin, one of the groups that opposed the ban, messaging was one reason the ban passed. According to Fair Wisconsin President Katie Belanger, the message about “the harm” the ban would do to civil rights didn’t resonate with voters. Another problem was educating the public on an issue most had not really thought deeply about.

Belanger says her side learned from the defeat in Wisconsin. Many of those lessons, particularly about messaging, were applied in Minnesota in 2012 when Republicans put the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot.

In Minnesota, opposition to the constitutional amendment was organized by Minnesotans United For All Families, an umbrella group of national and Minnesota LGBT rights groups.

Minnesota United’s message focused not so much on civil rights, but on the right to marry the person you love. Belanger says that message “made the personal connection” that her group had failed to make in Wisconsin nearly six years earlier. The message was also more conducive to person-to-person storytelling. Grassroots Solutions, a Minnesota-based political messaging company, helped Minnesota United develop the “conversation-based strategy” that was carried door-to-door by thousands of very motivated volunteers.

The right time

This was also 2012, not 2006. The winds of change seemed to be at the backs of ban opponents. President Obama had reversed his stance on same-sex marriage and decided to support marriage equality, opening up more discussion about the issue. The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was going away. Other states were making marriage equality legal. In neighboring Iowa, same-sex marriage had been legal for several years because of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

Despite that, public opinion in Minnesota was initially slow to change. Before the campaign began, public opinion heavily favored banning same-sex marriage. However, since Republicans made the move to put the ban on the ballot nearly two years before the election, opponents had time to influence public opinion. As the campaign entered its second year, polls showed growing opposition to the ban. A former Republican governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson, came out against the marriage ban – as well as another politically-motivated, Republican-authored, constitutional amendment requiring photo ID to vote. Former Independence Party Governor Jesse Ventura urged his libertarian-minded supporters to vote against the ban.

In the end, the constitutional amendment went down to defeat, and along with it went Republican majorities in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature. A majority of voters not only agreed that the government shouldn’t tell people who they can and can’t love, but also thought Republicans had “overreached” by trying to impose a socially conservative constitutional straightjacket on what has traditionally been one of the most liberal states in the nation.

With Democrats in charge of Minnesota’s legislature and governor’s office for the first time in 22 years, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed and signed into law a few months later.

Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage future

Public opinion toward same-sex marriage has grown more favorable in Wisconsin since voters constitutionally banned same-sex marriage in 2006.

A statewide poll in February 2013 from Public Policy Polling found the margin of support of had narrowed to 44 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed to allowing same-sex marriage in Wisconsin. The difference was within the poll’s margin of error… and 10 percent hadn’t made up their mind.

Both sides agree that if a vote were held today it would be much closer, but disagree on who would win. But that point is moot for the moment, because a GOP-controlled state legislature is not about to put the issue on the ballot. Even if they did, Republican Governor Scott Walker notes that it takes two sessions of the legislature to change the constitution. “I just don’t see that as being anything that’s going to be addressed anytime soon.”  Walker has previously expressed his support for leaving gay marriage rights up to the discretion of states and their voters. He’s also suggested that the government shouldn’t sanction marriage at all. “Leave that up to the churches and synagogues,” he said this year while appearing on “Meet The Press.”

Walker and those supporting same-sex marriage agree on one important thing — general opposition to LGBT rights appears to be a losing issue for the GOP. Walker has suggested that because more and more younger voters support marriage equality, the Republican party can’t maintain its opposition into the future. Fair Wisconsin’s Katie Belanger says that LGBT bashing is no longer a winning issue. As evidence, she says Walker has taken action against many progressive groups such as unions, but has conspicuously avoided doing the same to LGBT groups.

Belanger admits that changing Wisconsin’s Constitution is a long way off. The process in the legislature takes at least two (if not four) years, and before that legislators opposing same-sex marriage will need to be defeated, retire or change their mind. Added up, it will likely take many years.

Another ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could possibly invalidate Wisconsin’s constitutional ban. But Belanger says it will take the “right case” to do so. So far, a case like that doesn’t appear to be headed to the high court.

Until then, Wisconsin supporters of same-sex marriage will use the messages Minnesota popularized to educate the public and work at electing LGBT-friendly people at the local level so other discriminatory laws and ordinances can be eliminated. Fair Wisconsin is also fighting conservative groups that would like to roll back the victories LGBT groups have won, such as recognition of domestic partnerships. Conservative groups say domestic partnerships are too much like marriage and therefore violate Wisconsin’s constitution. They are appealing their case to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, but Belanger is confident the the court will find what many gay and lesbian couples in Wisconsin and Minnesota already know — domestic partnerships are no substitute for marriage.

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