Sex & Relationships

Marriage Equality Hangs in the Balance: Prop. 8 in a Dead Heat

This weekend's call to action from religious leaders to prevent the "destruction of Western civilization" could help push equality foes to victory.
Undecided voters.

For 16,000 married same-sex couples this Halloween, those two words -- undecided voters -- are the scariest goblins they've ever faced.

According to the final statewide Field Poll before the Nov. 4 election, 49 percent of Californians plan to vote against Prop. 8, the ballot initiative that would change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry, and 44 percent plan to vote for it. However, the survey shows 7 percent undecided. With a margin of error of 3.3 percent, that's up to 10 percent undecided.

The Oct. 31 poll of 966 likely voters was conducted from Oct. 18 to Oct. 28. Both sides in the Prop. 8 battle reported a combined total of more than $63.4 million in campaign donations on Oct. 30. "A relatively large segment of voters are in conflict over this measure," Mark DiCamillo, the poll's director, told the San Francisco Chronicle. He noted that the Yes on 8 campaign had "raised some doubts and moved people over to their side" since the last Field Poll in September, which showed that 55 percent opposed Prop. 8 while only 38 percent supported it.

Each side tried to leverage the numbers to their advantage.

"We're moving in the right direction," Yes on 8 spokesperson Chip White told the Chronicle. "Momentum is clearly on our side in what's going to be a close race."

"The Field Poll shows that Prop. 8's deceptive campaign has failed to move their numbers much at all," No on Prop. 8 Senior Campaign Adviser Steve Smith said in a statement, referring to Prop. 8 campaign ads claiming that failure to pass the initiative would result in a mandate to teach schoolchildren about gay marriage. No on Prop. 8 countered with an ad in which California Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell called the Prop. 8 ads "scare tactics and lies." Smith also rejected "any suggestion that there will be a last-minute surge for Prop. 8 in a year where California is expected to go overwhelmingly for Sen. Barack Obama" for president over Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival. But the survey found that 22 percent had already voted and backed Prop. 8 by 50 to 44 percent. Therefore, DiCamillo told the San Jose Mercury News that Obama "turnout has to appear for the No side to prevail." According to the poll, Obama leads McCain by a 22-point margin.

But the poll is a snapshot of voter preferences taken before an expected surge of religious activism. On Nov. 1, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins will join Yes on 8 leader Rev. Jim Garlow and Lou Engel, founder of "The Call" for a 10-hour religious revival-style rally at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium with tens of thousands of Christians who were asked to pray and fast for 40 days.

On Oct. 30, Dobson devoted his radio program to promoting "The Call" rally, choking up as he said he felt the hand of God telling him to go. "The Lord must be involved in this," Dobson said. Garlow agreed, saying they were "crying out" to God in spiritual desperation to save California, as they were "watching the destruction of Western civilization."

The religious zeal to pass Prop. 8 is not restricted to these well-known Christian evangelicals. According to Californians Against Hate, an independent group not associated with the No on Prop. 8 campaign, other contributors to Yes on 8 include John Templeton Jr. and his wife, of Bryn Mawr, Penn., who contributed $1,000,000; and Elsa Prince of Holland, Mich., mother of Erik Prince, founder and head of the controversial private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, who gave $450,000.

The biggest funder of the Yes on 8 campaign has been the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or the Mormon Church, which is estimated to have contributed $20 million so far.

"The LDS Church's campaign to pass Proposition 8 represents its most vigorous and widespread political involvement since the late 1970s, when it helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. It even departs from earlier efforts on behalf of traditional marriage, in which members felt more free to decide their level of involvement," the Salt Lake Tribune reported Oct. 26. "This time, LDS leaders have tapped every resource, including the church's built-in phone trees, e-mail lists and members' willingness to volunteer and donate money. Many California members consider it a directive from God and have pressured others to participate. Some leaders and members see it as a test of faith and loyalty."

The Catholic-affiliated Knights of Columbus has also contributed significantly. But it is the admonition from the pulpit on the Sunday before the election that could have a serious impact. According to Field Poll director DiCamillo, Catholics make up nearly a quarter of likely voters. And there could be a Bradley effect -- which is what happens when a voter misleads a pollster.

In 2000, for instance, Catholics were split evenly in the final pre-election poll on how they would vote on Prop. 22, the same-sex marriage ban on that year's ballot. But exit polls showed Catholics actually voted for Prop. 22 by a margin of 15 points, DiCamillo told the Chronicle. In the Oct. 31 poll, Catholics opposed Prop. 8 by a margin of 48 to 44 -- down from 55 to 36 percent in September.

"The Sunday before the election could be important, since people may hear priests and ministers preaching against same-sex marriage," DiCamillo said.

The poll also found nuanced confusion over support for "traditional marriage" and a desire not to discriminate against a group of people, as described in a new No on Prop. 8 ad voiced over by African American actor Samuel L. Jackson. The new ad notes the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the onetime ban against interracial marriage.

And, in addition to a television spot featuring Sen. Dianne Feinstein urging a No vote, the No on Prop. 8 campaign just released a robo-call from former President Bill Clinton, who infamously signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In the call, Clinton says: "Proposition 8 would use state law to single out one group of Californians to be treated differently -- discriminating against members of our family, our friends and our co-workers. If I know one thing about California, I know that is not what you're about. That is not what America is about. Please vote no on 8. It's unfair and it's wrong. Thank you."

The battle against Prop. 8 is not a partisan affair, however. The independent Republicans Against 8 produced an online ad reminding voters that Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan spoke out against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative 30 years ago and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes Prop. 8 now. No word yet if the campaign will put this ad on television.

But it's not just politics; for some it is a question of religious interpretation. The poll showed that 65 percent of likely voters believe that traditional marriage is "one of the cornerstones of the country's Judeo-Christian heritage," with 50 percent believing that Prop. 8 would restore traditional marriage while continuing to provide adequate domestic partnership rights.

On the other hand, 61 percent think Prop. 8 would deny one group of citizens "the dignity and responsibility of marriage," and 58 percent believe that domestic partnership laws don't provide "the same certainty and security that marriage laws provide."

"This race is in a dead heat," Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California and a leader in the No on Prop. 8 campaign, told AlterNet. "We see a slight increase in support for our side. But there is a question about the Bradley effect and turnout. Every poll shows us within the margin of error, and I think when it becomes clear that the Prop. 8 side is being so offensive as to equate same-sex marriage with Nazism, the voters of California will reject this kind of bigotry and discrimination, and they will reject Prop. 8 and reject this politics of division that's been around for too long. I think on Nov. 4, we will see a major change in California and in the country. It's time for healing."

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