Numbers can be scary things. As the summer of "death panels" draws to a close, I'm still digesting Tuesday's NBC poll showing that a mind-boggling 45% of Americans have been convinced that the Democrats' health care reform will allow the government to decide when to stop providing health care to the elderly.
The data that concerns me today comes not from Washington, however, but from Maine. Opponents of marriage equality there have submitted enough signatures to force a California-style ballot referendum in November, in the hopes of using a "people's veto" to reverse the bill signed into law in May providing full marriage benefits to all Maine residents. I have two main areas of concern.
Public opinion on the issue in Maine is difficult to discern. With the country fixated on health care reform all summer, there has been no update as to how Maine residents feel on the issue since a poll in April put the issue before residents while the marriage equality bill was working its way through the legislature. The first question asked "The Maine Legislature is considering a bill that would ... allow marriage licenses to be issued to any two persons regardless of the sex of such persons. Do you support or oppose this proposed bill?" 49.5% opposed and 47.3% supported, with only 3.3% undecided (a very low figure for most polling questions.) While this figure may be the one that marriage equality opponents publicize, the second question painted a slightly different picture: "Which of the following comes closest to your position on the issue of marriage for gay and lesbian couples and civil unions?" 39.4% supported full marriage rights, 34.5% supported civil unions or partnerships, and only 23% said that they opposed legal recognition at all.
The bill has split Maine down the middle, it seems, when in fact only 23% of residents responded favor no legal recognition for same-sex couples at all. The situation is also clouded by the poll's error margin of 4.9% at the 95% confidence level. Essentially, this means that if the poll were conducted 100 times more under identical conditions (surveying 400 statewide residents at random), these numbers would be within 4.9 percentage points of the results of this poll 95 times out of 100. Plus or minus three percent is what major polling firms usually like to see - with a margin of error this high, the 49.5/47.3 split could mean a virtual tie, or it could mean a 55-45 split - and there's a 5% chance the difference could be even wider. Factor in that the numbers are nearly four months old and we're left with virtually nothing to work with when it comes to understanding how residents actually feel on the issue, and thus how they may choose to vote in November.
The anti-marriage equality funding is significantly larger, and going full-speed ahead. I broke down the funding sources reported last week below:
The Proposition 8 fight in California was lost with marriage equality supporters being outspent nearly 2-1 and the numbers here are worryingly similar, albeit on a much smaller scale. Based on what I can find, the National Organization for Marriage (that's the same people behind the "Gathering Storm" ad turned viral Youtube sensation) has raised more money as of July - $160,000 - than the entire pro-marriage equality campaign combined. The Human Rights Campaign has pledged to give $100,000 in the next few months, but even that money will not close the gap, and certainly not fast enough.
As we can see, there's a tangible difference between the four sources that make up virtually all of the opponents' funding, and the sources of the marriage equality campaign, which is mostly smaller donors and Maine residents donating and support coming from only two major national organizations (the ACLU and the HRC.) Supporters of marriage equality can beat opponents at their own game by encouraging larger nonprofits and organizations to donate to the cause in Maine. However, we can also succeed where the opposition has failed, by showing that our financial support truly comes from the grassroots and not just through large organizations.
We can beat the opponents of same-sex marriage both financially and in the ground game as long as we can draw enough attention to the issue. Last November, national excitement over Obama and congressional elections caused marriage equality supporters - including me - to take their finger off the pulse in California until it was too late. This year, health care reform is rightly a major preoccupation for writers, organizers, lobbyists, and other advocates. To win in Maine, however, we're going to need to renew national interest in the issue by raising our voices and supporting No on 1 with our money and time. As momentum grows, the media and polling firms will follow suit, allowing us to see the lay of the land more clearly and hopefully showing us that Maine residents side with marriage equality supporters nationwide, in the majority.
Voters in Californian now support marriage equality by five percentage points - and with a margin of error of +/-1.1%, the big picture there has come into focus a few months too late. Let's not let the same thing happen in Maine.Back