The Marriage Movement's Secret Weapon: Radical Cooperation

Co-written by Thalia Zepatos, director of research and messaging at Freedom to Marry and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way.

With 60% of Americans now supporting marriage for same-sex couples, it's easy to forget that just a few years ago the prospects were bleak. When the two of us first met at a conference in February 2010, the movement was still reeling from losses in California and Maine which closed out a decade of 30 defeats that had left the majority of states with constitutional bans on the freedom to marry. We knew that to turn this brutal record around, we needed to better understand what was going on in the minds of voters. But we also knew that an even bigger obstacle could get in the way: turf battles, the bane of any political movement, where individual organizations protect their own branded work even at the expense of reaching a unified goal.

One of us had just joined the team at Freedom to Marry, after having been in the trenches of the marriage movement for years working on state ballot campaigns, and was beginning to pioneer a new messaging approach that identified emotional ties to marriage. The other was leading a research project at the center-left think tank Third Way to explore what was holding voters "in the middle" back from supporting marriage in California, Maine, and nationally. While Third Way was digging deeply into that question, Freedom to Marry began an unprecedented project: collecting and analyzing every survey and focus group that had been conducted on the topic to date. That meant convincing organizations to hand over proprietary research they had paid for--often when it had never been released publicly. With no small amount of trepidation, Third Way and others took a leap of faith and shared their results. And it laid the groundwork for a level of radical cooperation that's one of the untold stories of this historically rapid turn-around.

Pollster Lisa Grove was able to scrutinize the resulting treasure trove of over 85 studies from a half-dozen states, including polls and focus groups, campaign results, and academic research. Her analysis validated the promising new insights emerging from Third Way and others' research: that talking about "rights" in the context of marriage reinforced a negative notion that gay couples didn't really understand what marriage was about in the first place. Americans in the middle needed to hear that gay couples wanted to get married for the same reason anyone else does: to make a lifetime commitment. Freedom to Marry then convened a confidential partnership, dubbed the Marriage Research Consortium, to continue this learning and make it actionable on the ground. For more than four years, key national and state groups investing in marriage research, including ours and the Movement Advancement Project, met on a monthly basis privately and without fanfare to share findings from ongoing public opinion projects and discuss where more research was needed.

Through the Marriage Research Consortium, organizations like Basic Rights Oregon could offer a seedling of an idea from their focus group and quickly get a national organization to test it in their next round of research. This radical level of cooperation and openness extended beyond sharing results--it also meant circulating draft polls for input from the group, hiring a common pollster, Lisa Grove, and giving her permission to use proprietary knowledge gained in one project for a different client in the next. The trust built exponentially accelerated the learning process, as every group heard insights gleaned from a round of focus groups or a poll in real time, and it allowed us to surface weaknesses in our own research for further testing by others as we moved collectively to "crack the code."

The next level of radical cooperation came when Freedom to Marry packaged the messages discovered through this collaborative research into an open-source public education campaign called Why Marriage Matters. This continuously updated portal provided sample ads, videos, graphics, and tool kits that brought the new values-based commitment message to life. Over 30 national and state organizations signed on as Why Marriage Matters partners. Now, instead of re-creating the wheel, every state that became a battle ground had access to research-based messages, sample ads, and an approach that was proven effective. That doesn't mean that local communication efforts became cookie cutter copies--unlike our opposition that literally recycled its ads from state to state. We shared everything with state campaign leaders--including drafts, transcripts, crosstabs, and anything else that might be useful--so that they could test and refine the findings in their local context, identify real people in their own communities to serve as messengers, and make the messages their own. We knew that together, we as a movement had cracked the code on Election Day in 2012, when Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington secured a clean sweep of victories at the ballot, catalyzing the unstoppable momentum that's taken us to the steps of the Supreme Court.

There have been many people behind our country's swift evolution on marriage, and this is just one piece of the story. But there is no doubt in our minds that we would not be where we are today if so many organizations hadn't decided to put aside proprietary rules and treat each other not as competitors for donors, credit, or a scoop but rather as partners in a single mission--one that we could only win by working together.