12/03/2012 07:13 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What the Money Gap in the 2012 Marriage Ballot Measures Means for the Future of LGBT Equality

In the wake of the major electoral victories for marriage equality across the country this fall, the anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage (NOM) had some explaining to do. No longer able to rely on its long-standing argument that voters always reject same-sex marriage, NOM did some soul searching and finally identified the reason it suffered unprecedented defeats: It just didn't raise enough money.

In a post-mortem email to donors and supporters, NOM President Brian Brown wrote that "each of the state marriage campaigns was significantly outspent by their opponents.... [W]e were outspent by over three-to-one ... and by nearly five-to-one in Washington." Brown went on to bemoan the fact that the anti-LGBT campaigns only raised half of the $20 million they allegedly needed to win. "What is required to regain victory?" Brown asked rhetorically in conclusion. "In a word, money."

Still digesting NOM's losses in four states, Brown can be excused for forgetting that spending alone doesn't equate to electoral success. Just ask Sheldon Adelson or Linda McMahon what they got in return for their nine-figure political investments in 2012. But by publicly raising the issue of the money gap, Brown may have inadvertently touched on a new and significant development in the fight for LGBT equality: a steadily decreasing appetite among the right wing, especially among small donors and the conservative grassroots, to support anti-LGBT initiatives.

At the same time, growing activism among fair-minded Americans, including many straight allies, provided the resources that supporters of marriage equality needed to fund campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Largely, these donations came in amounts of $25, $50, $100 or similar small increments, as tens of thousands of donors responded to calls for contributions and volunteer support.

It's the Small Donors, Stupid

For NOM and opponents of LGBT equality, 2008 represented a high-water mark in the drive to drum up grassroots support for an anti-LGBT cause, Proposition 8 in California. Anti-LGBT forces, led by NOM, the Church of Latter-day Saints, the Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, raised more than $40 million to pass the constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in California -- roughly the same amount as the pro-LGBT groups. Congregants responded to the calls of the LDS Church hierarchy to give money, canvass precincts and make phone calls. One campaign official estimated that 80 to 90 percent of early volunteers on the Prop 8 campaign were Mormons responding to the church's calls to action.

Four years later, the robust campaign that passed Prop. 8 must have seemed like a distant memory to the likes of Brown and Frank Schubert, the political consultant assigned to deliver NOM's anti-LGBT message on television and in the media. In the four state ballot measures, anti-LGBT forces raised just over $12 million in total, compared with more than $34 million raised by successful pro-equality state campaign coalitions as well as national LGBT groups, including the Human Rights Campaign.

What happened? One way to visualize what changed between 2008 and 2012 is to take all the campaign finance disclosure reports filed in the four states and put them into two stacks, one representing each side of the battle for LGBT equality. The result is remarkable: the pro-equality stack stands more than two feet high, while the anti-LGBT reports barely top an inch.

This dramatic difference in the two sides' reports is due to the number of donors to the campaigns, especially small donors. Take one state and one reporting period as an example. In Maryland the first campaign finance reports were filed on Oct. 12, covering the three months since the state certified Question 6 in July. Maryland Marriage Alliance, the anti-LGBT campaign, filed a 40-page report listing three large donors, including NOM and the Knights of Columbus, which together contributed $801,000, and about 300 small donors who contributed just $37,000. By contrast, the same report filed by Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the pro-equality campaign, came in at a whopping 882 pages, listing more than 10,000 mostly small donors and $3.2 million in contributions.

In state after state, the massive disparity in the number of donors, particularly small donors, was telling. In Minnesota the anti-LGBT Minnesotans for Marriage filed a report covering seven months of fundraising that disclosed $826,000 in contributions from three large institutional donors, including NOM and the Minnesota Catholic Conference, and $2,119 from just seven (yes, seven) individual donors. The startlingly low number of small donors led Common Cause Minnesota, in a complaint it filed with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, to declare that "it stretches all credibility that grassroots support for the Marriage Amendment is less than one percent of its opposition."

But maybe it isn't so far-fetched. NOM and its allies may have been outspent three to one, as Brown noted, but the real story of the marriage initiative battles was the much larger -- as great as 40 to 1 -- difference in the number of donors between the two sides. The $12 million that marriage equality opponents raised didn't come primarily in chunks of $25 and $50 contributions from John or Jane Does but in large infusions from three organizations: NOM, the Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus. NOM contributed nearly half the total ($5.7 million), while the Catholic Church and its affiliate Knights of Columbus together devoted more than $2.1 million. The LDS Church, at least publicly, was nowhere to be seen.

The funding of NOM itself -- the largest national organization devoted exclusively to anti-LGBT causes -- doesn't look much different from the ballot measures. Tax documents recently obtained by HRC reveal that NOM is mostly funded by two undisclosed large donors, accounting for nearly 75 percent of its revenue in 2011 -- revenue that dropped by nearly one third from 2010. In 2010 just five donors contributed 90 percent of NOM's revenue. A grassroots organization NOM is not.

Pro-equality forces had their share of large donors, too, including Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, Microsoft executives Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, philanthropist Jon Stryker and hedge fund manager Paul Singer. But the bulk of donations supporting marriage equality came from tens of thousands of small donors across the country, many of whom opened up their wallets for LGBT civil rights for the first time.

So where were the small donors opposing marriage equality? After all, NOM had the resources and the expertise to fundraise extensively for the four ballot measures. The national organization and affiliated state campaigns sent out hundreds of emails soliciting donations. They sported shiny websites and retained high-paid consultants.

The Anti-LGBT Forces' "Gathering Storm"

Remember the infamous 2009 NOM ad, the one that prophesized that "there is a storm gathering" and "the clouds are dark"? While the money gap is likely not the reason NOM lost in all four states, the predominance of three large institutional funders and the near disappearance of small donors may be indicative of larger and, for Brown, discouraging trends relating to the popularity of anti-LGBT efforts. What Brown sees as a cause-and-effect relationship between spending and election outcomes is more likely a correlative one between fundraising and grassroots activism. In other words, NOM's ballot measure fundraising problems may stem from the steady decline in public support for the anti-LGBT views Brown but few others strongly embrace in 2012.

A lot has changed since 2008 and the Prop. 8 campaign. Polls now widely show that a majority of Americans supports marriage equality. Prominent Republicans, including Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Ted Olson and Ken Mehlman, have come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Corporations like Starbucks, Microsoft and General Mills took a pro-equality stance on the ballot measures. President and Mrs. Obama publicly embraced marriage equality. Conservative "values" voters put LGBT rights -- and specifically same-sex marriage -- far down on their list of electoral priorities.

Make no mistake: Anti-LGBT efforts have been and will continue to be well-financed. But the anti-LGBT fervor of the Catholic Church hierarchy and the Knights of Columbus leadership is not accompanied by any equivalent core of grassroots activism, as reflected in the lack of small donors to the anti-equality ballot measure campaigns or to NOM. In fact, a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that nearly 60 percent of Catholics support marriage equality. Additional anecdotal reports suggest that NOM's ground operations in the four states were meager, with few field staff or volunteers to drum up support for views that appear increasingly outdated.

A strong foundation of small donors can be indicative of a mobilized base and healthy grassroots support. Just look at Obama's successful 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Likewise, for the pro-equality ballot campaigns, tens of thousands of small donors were accompanied in the streets by thousands of passionate volunteers making phone calls and canvassing door-to-door.

By contrast, support of anti-marriage efforts is these days too top-heavy, with a few captains steering the ship but no crew to support it. The storm clouds are indeed gathering in late 2012, and NOM's ship is in serious trouble.