Gay Marriage: yes or no?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 17, 2012

But McTighe, who has done consulting work for Rhode Island's gay marriage movement, is the first to say that the ballot route may not be optimal in every state.

One big difference is that in states like Maine, citizens can petition to put a question on the ballot. In Rhode Island, only the legislature can take that action.

So, if gay marriage is destined to land on the ballot elsewhere, it isn't here — complicating the argument for taking a proactive approach.

There are also questions of timing. The next presidential election, with its younger electorate, is four years away. Any ballot question campaign, between now and then, would be waged in less-than-ideal conditions.

And Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, says there are real concerns about the costs — financial and psychological — of ballot fights that can get very ugly.

"When you run a campaign like that," he says, "you hurt real people."

Of course, for advocates still trying to get a bill through the legislature, even suggesting that the ballot box is a possibility would be impolitic. Why offer legislators an out?

But it is not merely the shifting poll numbers and impressive fundraising totals that have made the ballot a suddenly intriguing possibility. Gay rights activists, nationwide, are also getting better at the message.

In Maine, advocates are running an ad featuring three firefighters endorsing the right of a fourth — a gay man sitting alongside them in the firehouse — to marry whomever he wants. Another stars a Republican voter, who opposed gay marriage in 2009, explaining why he switched sides.

Solomon, of Freedom to Marry, adds that advocates across the country are moving away from messages focused on the rights conferred by marriage and toward ads focused on the fundamental reason people get hitched — love.

Of course, same-sex marriage advocates have led in the polls before, only to see their support collapse on Election Day. And it would be foolish to underestimate the prowess of an anti-gay nuptials movement that has amassed a record of 32-0 to date. Strategist Frank Schubert, a former public relations executive at the center of the traditional marriage movement, has lately unveiled some clever ads of his own, meant to assure moderates that they are not bigots if they oppose same-sex nuptials.

"Everyone has a right to love who they choose," says a spot running in Minnesota, "but nobody has the right to redefine marriage."

Still, if gay rights advocates prevail next month, it will be clear that even the best-designed arguments for the old order are losing their power.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter  @d_scharfenberg.

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