Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why HERO went down

Considering the public polling, it came as a shock. Last night, Houston voters resoundingly defeated the anti-discrimination ordinance called HERO, 39%-61%. The massive margin, coupled with the simultaneous victory of a progressive Democrat for mayor, illustrate something deeper going on than strong off-year turnout from white conservatives. Those who supported HERO need to learn a few lessons.

1) Social conservatives did not deliver the votes. While evangelical-oriented politicians and operatives ran the opposition Campaign for Houston, many of the votes came from demographics we tend to see as socially liberal. Consider this map from the Houston Chronicle's Mike Morris:

Google Fusion table from Mike Morris illustrating HERO vote by precinct.
HERO only won in the blue (50%-60%), purple (60%-75%), and magenta (75%+) areas. Now compare this to the mayoral outcome by precinct.

In contrast, much of the map is dominated by yellow, where HERO took 25% - 40% of the vote.

Google Fusion table from Mike Morris illustrating mayoral vote by precinct.
In the second map, the yellow represents runner-up Bill King (R). Yes, he won in places HERO went down, where suburban Republicans live in Clear Lake and Kingwood.

But obviously the anti-HERO forces, calling themselves the Campaign for Houston, won a much bigger victory than King's 24% (or 33% combined among anti-HERO candidates if you include Ben Hall's vote). HERO was also defeated in many black precincts dominated by Turner (orange in the second map) and Hispanic ones won by Garcia (teal in the second map).

This is a city that voted for a lesbian mayor in 2009. A city that twice delivered over 60% for President Obama. And yet, this is a city that voted against HERO.

Social conservatives have a path to victory bigger than their own base, which means that...

2) Social conservatives have a new playbook.

The Campaign for Houston could have messaged differently. It could have been all about religious liberty, for example, or wording issues with the ordinance (which did play some role in the debate).They could have talked about the large fines businesses could face for violating the ordinance. Instead, opponents single-mindedly focused on HERO's rules against businesses discriminating based on gender identity, charging the ordinance allowed predators to pretend to be transgender and really attack women in their restrooms. Even worse, the predators could target little girls, like in this ad.

The black and white ad creates a sombre mood, with a rough-looking and flannel-clad man entering a women's restroom. He hides in a stall as a cute little schoolgirl walks in. As she enters a stall, he follows her. Her eyes go wide as the ad ends, with seconds of silence to make the viewer think about the scary thing they just saw.

It was a winning (if cromulent) issue for them. Now that Obergefell has made gay marriage the law of the land, expect social conservatives to push the fight anti-discrimination ordinances as the next battle of the culture wars. This issue will be the tip of their spear.

3) Which isn't very different from their old playbook.

In 2008, social conservatives and religious organizations pushed for California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in that state's constitution. They ran incredibly effective ads, like this one.

A cute little girl is asking her two dads about babies. When her dad tells her you don't have to be married to have babies, she looks down at the floor, crushed. "Then...what's marriage for?" The narrator then intones to the audience, "Let's not confuse our kids."

Another prominent ad pushed the vicitmization of children angle seen in the HERO campaign. Again, a little girl is the star, as she tells her mom about what she learned at school.

"I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!" she says with a huge smile. Her mother simply has a confused look, unsure how to respond, as a narrator takes over again. "Teaching children about gay marriage WILL happen here unless we pass Proposition Eight."

The ads won awards for their effectiveness, with their relentless and single-minded messaging: think of the children.

3) LGBT activists defeated themselves in 2008. 

In their fight against Prop 8, LGBT activists ran ads like this against the measure:

The ad calls Prop 8 "a drastic step to strip people of rights" and "a major threat to our basic constitutional rights." Further, the narrator lectures that "regardless of how you feel about marriage, it's wrong to treat people differently under the law."

The fact that the narrator lectures voters is the problem. Many voters then felt a reflexive discomfort with gay marriage, especially being taught to their voters. Accusing these voters of discrimination only rationalized their opposition rather than shaming them into voting no. 

Still, the argument may not have proven fatal except for one public official's off-message stunts. Then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom chose his career over defeating the proposition.
A few weeks before the election, with opponents of Prop 8 fighting back against distracting assertions that the right to same-sex marriage meant that "homosexuality" will be promoted in the public schools, Newsom presided over the same-sex wedding of a first grade teacher at San Francisco City Hall. Eighteen of her students were on hand to toss rose petals and blow bubbles on their just married teacher and her new wife.
Suddenly, the single-minded message of the Prop 8 supporters seemed prescient. Any shame voters may have felt from the vote no side fell apart, justified by Newsom's stunts.

4) And now LGBT activists are doing it again.

Instead of Gavin Newsom, Annise Parker took the role of the public official gone rogue. At the height of the campaign, when Houston Astros star Lance Berkman starred in an ad for the Campaign for Houston, Parker went on the attack.

Suddenly, the media was talking about the battle between the mayor and the Houston Astros star. Who do you think was going to win that?

More importantly, the media spoke about that fight more than any independent messaging from Houston Unites.

Not that Houston Unites' strategy (rather than message) proved very compelling either. They actually had some decent ads, like this one discussing discrimination against veterans.

But in a huge city like Houston, television ads with limited budgets can only go so far. The Campaign for Houston focused on cheaper radio ads (and not just on the usual talk radio and country stations either), and they got them on the air early. Houston Unites focused on TV, where their message ironically had less reach. Besides, by the time Houston Unites got on the air, mayoral campaigns were up too, drowning out the message further. In effect, Houston Unites never got to push out its own message.

It didn't help that the campaign began this summer after the Texas Supreme Court forced the ordinance onto the ballot. Unexpectedly, supporters had to cobble together a unified effort and try to raise the millions of dollars to mount an effective advertising campaign. They only partially succeeded.

Without strong independent messaging from Houston Unites, the narrative in the media centered on the bathroom issue, whether it was the Houston Chronicle, ABC 13, the Texas Tribune, even the New York Times. They talked about the Texans owner, Bob Mcnair, and his opposition to HERO. They talked about Parker's brawl with Berkman.

There wasn't much talk about veterans, or the elderly, or African Americans, or other groups also covered by the ordinance. Rather than pushing their own message, HERO supporters responded weakly to their opponents.

In debate terms, Houston Unites dropped the argument. They never really addressed the bathroom issue beyond calling the claims false and  their opponents supporters of discrimination. Their arguments made supporters seem like they did not take voter concerns seriously, or worse seem condescending towards those fears.

In so doing, Houston Unites let voters' fears linger. Yesterday, those fears erupted into a crushing defeat for HERO.


  1. Democrats need to start making these same kinds of ads. Show a Hispanic girl asking her mom why they couldn't live in the apartment complex, and the mom says "they don't serve our kind there" (a semi-quote of a memorable line from star wars). Then the girl tears up or something. Look politics is all about manipulation and if democrats don't use the tools available the harm done by right wing policies will cause serious harm to real people.

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  3. And the social conservatives will run an ad with the same Hispanic mother and daughter looking alarmed as they find a middle-aged transgender "woman" in the baño marked "Damas"!

  4. > They never really addressed the bathroom issue beyond calling the claims false and their opponents supporters of discrimination.

    What other options are there for addressing this issue? What should a HERO supporter have done to combat what they saw as a misleading scare tactic?

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