Minnesota Marriage and Political Strategy

I’m proud that my adopted home state of Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage this afternoon. I’m also proud of my law school colleague Dale Carpenter, who was central to efforts to pass the measure. And I’m looking forward to some weddings.

There are lots of lessons about politics and gay rights to draw from today’s victory. But I want to emphasize a more general lesson about ballot measures.

Two years ago this month, the Minnesota Legislature, then controlled by a newly-installed Republican majority, voted to hold a statewide referendum on marriage. A proposed amendment to the state constitution on the November 2012 ballot would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Unlike many states, Minnesota does not allow citizen-initiated referenda. But a simple majority of the legislature can put proposed constitutional amendments to the voters without the governor’s assent.

Some insiders have claimed that the rationale for doing so was, at least in part, a raw political one. Advancing a measure important to social conservatives would drive up their turnout, helping preserve Republican legislative control. Surely that must have been at least part of it, along with a substantive desire to thwart same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

Whatever the reason, this turned out to be a political strategy failure of epic proportions. In retrospect, the scale of this miscalculation is stunning. Opponents of the amendment organized, raised over $10 million, and coalesced around a new strategy of personalizing marriage issues. The 31-year-old strategist brought on to manage the campaign against the amendment turned out to be a wunderkind. The amendment failed, 52.5% to 47.5%. A month beforehand, I would have predicted the reverse numbers. Not only that, but in a landslide that surprised everyone I know, voters also rejected a voter ID amendment, turned out a Republican U.S. House member, and flipped both chambers of the state legislature back to the Democrats by significant margins. The amendment drove turnout all right — just not the voters its proponents wanted. (The same appears to have happened in neighboring Wisconsin.)

And today was the final kicker. Two years ago, legislation actually allowing same-sex marriage was a pipe dream. Even at the beginning of 2013, it wasn’t clear if a bill would happen. Once again, I would have bet against it. But the sleeping grass-roots giant awakened by the amendment did not go back to bed. By all accounts, the organization that didn’t even exist two years ago pushed the measure through against considerable odds.

So, one other moral of this story: when it comes to referenda, be careful what you wish for.

You may also like...