I worked for No On 8, and one common criticism of the campaign was that it didn't show ads with same-sex couples. Many people said that Prop 8's passage showed the mistake in this strategy. The campaign strategists who made this decision, however, pointed out that No On 8 might have lost even more badly if they had shown LGBT people in ads. They argued that the ads targeted a narrow "movable middle" of people who hadn't made their minds up, and that these people were uncomfortable with images of same-sex couples. Showing supportive straight people, the argument went, would build support; showing same-sex couples would actually have been harmful.
Who was right? We'll never know. But there is a better way to answer this question than focus groups and "expert" consultants: randomized controlled testing.
I'm helping design a randomized controlled test for Equality Maine, Maine's LGBT advocacy group, that will look something like this. They'll randomly select 30,000 Maine voters, and randomly divided them into three groups of 10,000. (10,000 happens to be the number necessary for statistical significance.) Group A will receive a piece of mail with a photo of a same-sex couple and text trying to convince voters to support same-sex marriage. Group B will receive a piece of mail with a photo of a straight couple and similar text to Group A. Group C will receive nothing.
A couple days after voters receive the mail pieces, a survey company will call all three groups and ask them if they support same-sex marriage. (Shameless plug: If you run a survey company or a call center, check out my company's predictive dialer, Impact Dialing.) Based on the survey results, we'll be able to see which mail piece is the most effective. We'll also be able to see if some groups of people respond better to one message, and some groups better to the other message. For example, maybe older voters have so much ingrained homophobia that images of same-sex couples will make them less supportive, but images of straight parents of LGBT people will appeal to their sympathies. And perhaps younger unmarried voters who see images of a committed same-sex couple that can't marry will be able to relate more to that mail piece.
We'll never know if No On 8 made the right strategic choice by not showing same-sex couples. But going forward, we have better tools to figure out the answers to this and other questions. Leave a comment if you're working on a voter contact or fundraising campaign and want to test a message, a medium, or anything else.