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The Contexts of Movement Messaging During an Electoral Campaign

I wanted to take the opportunity to move from the presidential election, and talk a bit about ethnographic research that Laura Meadows (a Ph.D. student at UNC) and I conducted over the past year on Protect All NC Families, the coalition to defeat North Carolina’s constitutional amendment stating that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” While this has been a historic cycle for equality at the ballot box, it is worth remembering that it opened with a defeat in a southern state in May.  President Obama endorsed same sex marriage the next day.

A wonderful body of work has emerged in recent years that looks at the intersections between movements and institutional politics, including Amy Stone’s Gay Rights at the Ballot Box. The specific angle that I wanted to talk about in this post is the messaging strategy of the campaign.

In the course of the Amendment One campaign, something unexpected developed.  On the airwaves and streets, on lawn signs and t-shirts, on front porches and Facebook, the effort to defeat the amendment became about preventing children from losing their healthcare, protecting women suffering from domestic violence, and preventing families from being harmed by the negative potential consequences of the amendment.  By omission, the amendment, according to its detractors, was decidedly not about the right of lesbians and gays to marry or granting equal protection under the law for those living outside of heterosexual relationships.

We sought to understand why the coalition decided upon this particular messaging strategy and how it was created, implemented, and enforced.  We were particularly curious given that unlike many candidate, and even issue, campaigns, the coalition to defeat the amendment was made up of an extraordinary array of over 125 national, regional, and NC-based social movement, political, religious, and civil society organizations and groups.  Protect All NC Families’ steering committee alone comprised representatives from national organizations (American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Faith in America (FIA)); regional level organizations Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and Self-Help); and, North Carolina-based organizations (Equality NC and Replacements, Ltd.).  We wondered how these different groups, with various orientations towards the larger LGBT movement, coordinated their work and, even more, how this messaging strategy came to be seen as legitimate among these groups.

What we found surprised us.  Much of the literature in political communication and social movements casts consultants as resources that campaigns have at their disposal.  And yet, in the context of the coalition, we found that national messaging consultants were not so much resources as powerful organizational actors that ultimately wielded significant control over the campaign’s message and actively excluded dissenting voices within the coalition that sought to make an explicitly pro-equality argument.  These consultants did so through two primary means.  First, national message consultants made experience-based claims for expertise in the electoral field that other actors (those with movement orientations) found it hard to challenge.  Second, these consultants wielded quantitative accounts of electoral conditions through early polling conducted on the state of the race.  Importantly, consultants claimed to have the authoritative interpretation of these polls and argued they revealed a path to victory – claims that were ultimately backed by the coalition’s hierarchy.

In reality, none of this polling was conclusive, and staffers across the coalition were aware of this fact. Indeed, it is impossible to have an authoritative poll on a state ballot measure such as Amendment One given all of the very tenuous assumptions that have to be made about the universe of voters, turnout, and composition of the electorate.  Even more, polling was not ongoing, and the race may have been changing dynamically as the electorate became more knowledgeable through widespread reporting and the campaigns making their arguments.

In part given this uncertainty, challenges did arise, but at the periphery of the coalition where the consultants wielded less organizational power.   While consultants were guardians of the message for all of the formal press communication work, branding, and advertising, there was lots of slippage among other components of the coalition given differences in organizational position, orientations, values, and ultimately, the publics they were accountable to.   For instance, our ethnographic observations often revealed that in smaller forums with movement constituencies coalition actors often went “off-message” in emphasizing pro-equality and gay marriage themes.  At times, this was in response to explicit questioning and criticism about the campaign’s messaging strategy; at others, it was a strategy to maintain ties and good will among those who would be left in-state to pick up the pieces after the campaign.

In sum, what emerged for us was ultimately a story of how power and authority are worked out on a campaign that involves the explicit intermingling of actors from different movement and electoral fields.  National consultants wielded significant power, particularly given their claims to expertise and the quantitative evidence they could generate to bolster them.  All of which suggests that consultants are not mere resources, but full blown actors who shape the frames that movements ultimately strategically craft in electoral contexts.

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Written by Daniel Kreiss

November 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. […] the use of media in the last two US presidential campaigns. You can revisit his posts here, here, here, and here. You can also read more in his recently published book Taking Our Country Back: The […]

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