Out Against the Right: An Organizing Handbook for Queer Activists and Grassroots Organizers
For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.

How Does a Mainstream Campaign Form and Operate? Centralization, Message, and Media

The key characteristics of a "mainstream campaign" are:

  • its hierarchical and centralized structure
  • the focus on creating one (or sometimes 2-4), supposedly clear, usually de-lesbianized and de-gayed message(s) based on what "campaign professionals" believe people will vote for
  • a tightly controlled media and public relations campaign focused on straight people
  • the targeting of only certain voters based on other types of campaign models, stereotypes and a kind of cost/benefit analysis.

After discussing each of these in some detail, we'll focus on what we think are the limits of these types of campaigns and why alternative ways of fighting an initiative are necessary to our survival.

Hierarchical Structure

Usually mainstream campaign groups start with an informal group of lesbians and gay men concerned about a ballot initiative. Often they are people who've been involved in the local lesbian and gay community in some organizational capacity for some years. As the deadline for filing signatures gets closer, these people find supportive straight people to work with them to create a new organization. They form a steering committee or executive committee, usually made up of a combination of lesbians, gay men and straight people.

After the signature deadline passes and if there are enough signatures to put the anti-lesbian and gay initiative on the November ballot, this executive committee will rent an office (or several in different regions) and hire a full-time staff. This staff usually consists of a campaign manager, a media coordinator, a fundraiser, 1-5 field coordinators (often based in different regions) and, sometimes, an office manager. Usually these are people with experience in either candidate or issue campaigns, and sometimes they have experience with national lesbian/gay organizations. Often they are not from the region being targeted. These staff people are hired by and technically work for the steering or executive committee. But they are usually given wide -- if not total -- decision making powers because they are hired and paid specifically, as professionals, to make the campaign decisions, especially the campaign manager.

While they make the decisions, someone else has to do the actual work that makes up a campaign. These are the volunteers. These are usually lesbians, gay men and straight people, although it is our experience that a strong volunteer recruitment effort is not made within typical lesbian and gay spaces -- bars, for example. The volunteers are assigned to do the non-thinking jobs for the campaign -- they participate in strictly-controlled phone banks and canvassing efforts, stuff envelopes, do data entry, put up yard signs, and so on. Volunteers have little -- if any -- decision making role in the campaign. We call this "top-down" or "volunteerist" as opposed to more "grassroots controlled" models of organizing.


When there is an anti-lesbian and gay initiative on the state level, mainstream campaign offices are always set up in areas with a high number of voters and with a relatively solid financial base for running the campaign. This means they are located in the largest and/or wealthiest cities of each region. Ordinarily, there is one central office, located in the largest city, where the campaign manager and media people work. Sometimes a few other offices are set up around the state where field coordinators work; they take orders from and report back to the central campaign office.

However, there are usually many groups around the state who have been working against the initiative in their areas since before the signature deadline. These groups began on a totally grassroots level within their own towns and regions. Often, some of them will be conducting their own fundraising efforts, producing their own literature, and organizing their own events prior to the hiring of full-time staff by the mainstream campaign group. Usually an informal network will have been created among them so they can share information and strategies, but there will not be a centralized hierarchy. These independent local groups can range from liberal human rights organizations to Lesbian Avenger or Queer Nation chapters.

The centralization of all of these local, grassroots groups around the state is usually the first order of business for a newly-hired staff in the mainstream campaign's central office. The campaign needs the money, volunteers and infrastructure of these pre-existing grassroots groups in order to run its statewide campaign effectively according to its strategy. The money is essential to pay staff, rent offices and run their media campaign. And, they want these groups to follow their strategy, especially in terms of using the same literature with the same message. However, the mainstream campaign has no basis for demanding any of these things from existing groups since they were not formed out of a statewide mandate for them or for their strategy.

To attempt to get such a mandate, after-the-fact of their existence, they will call one or two statewide meetings and invite representatives from all the local groups concerned about the initiative. The campaign manager and other staff people will present their credentials: experience in/ success with other campaigns, knowledge of polling data on voters of the state in question, access to lots of money and national expertise. They stress the need for centralization and message control, often (erroneously) giving examples of other campaigns such as Oregon and Colorado. Then they ask the local groups to centralize. This means they will send all their money to the mainstream campaign and focus their future efforts on raising more money for the mainstream campaign and recruiting volunteers for mainstream campaign efforts such as phone banking. If these local, grassroots groups have projects of their own that they want to do, they will have to make requests to the mainstream campaign to get some of their own money back.

The decision to centralize is, of course, up to the local groups, since no one owns the state in question. Some local groups will decide to send a smaller percentage of their money and to keep some for their own grassroots efforts. Some will decide not to centralize at all, to keep their own money and run their own campaign. The vast majority, however, will probably agree to centralize, either because they are in agreement with the central campaign, or because they are convinced they don't have enough knowledge, expertise or resources to run their own local campaign. Some of these groups will change their minds later, when they don't receive any of their money back, even in the form of bumper stickers and yard signs, because their region was considered unimportant.


Mainstream campaigns against anti-lesbian and gay initiatives use the same basic strategy used by most candidate and issue campaigns: figuring out a clear message or set of messages that they think will persuade people to vote on our side. To do this, mainstream campaigns will spend a lot of their time and money on conducting and analyzing polls and other types of voter research (for example, focus groups). This research asks people questions about their attitudes toward homosexuality and other issues relating to the initiative. People's answers to the question will be analyzed and interpreted by the campaign professionals and then will create a message they believe will appeal to people's strongest reason to vote on our side.

Most polls used for fighting anti-lesbian and gay initiatives have the same basic findings, which are quoted over and over again by campaign professionals. These are:

  • Most US. voters (50-77%) say they believe lesbians and gay men are unacceptable, immoral, wrong.
  • Most US. voters (50-75%) say they oppose job and housing discrimination against lesbians and gay men. In some areas, similar percentages could be found for opposition to high taxes, big government, censorship, and so on.

Every mainstream campaign since 1992 has concluded from this information that homophobia is too entrenched to focus on before the vote. Instead of including homosexuality in the message, campaign professionals use other issues voters feel strongly about, such as discrimination, high taxpayer costs, unconstitutionality or government interference in private lives. Their logic is that voters will be more likely to agree with us on one of these issues than on the issue of lesbian and gay equal rights/humanity. Since most voters think homosexuality is wrong, the professionals believe the campaign should de-emphasize that issue as much as possible.

This campaign strategy has created major controversy within the lesbian and gay movement in areas targeted with initiatives, because there are groups who do not want to run such a campaign which they see as closeted and as preventing the building of a local lesbian and gay movement. Campaign professionals argue that people who support lesbian and gay visibility and movement building refuse to distinguish between a long term and short term goal. In other words, campaign professionals think winning the vote is most important and that other goals interfere with the type of campaign which will win the vote. They also argue that their point of view is based on a "scientific" method of interpreting polling data and persuading voters, while the lesbians and gay men living and working at the grassroots level are proposing an "emotional" response to organizing.


     The purpose of the campaign's media plan is to get out their message clearly and repetitively to voters. The strict use of one message, or set of messages ("staying on message" in campaign lingo), has meant that the majority of print and television ads of mainstream campaigns have not even mentioned the words "lesbian", "gay", or "homosexuality" when explaining the initiative. Of those that do mention these words, most try to downplay them by emphasizing "more important" issues the initiative raises.

    Press conferences will be highly orchestrated. Spokespeople will be selected because of their perceived trustworthiness among straight voters (polls are often used to determine this). Most spokespeople will be straight since the target audience is presumed to be mostly straight and straight people don't trust or respect lesbians and gay men. When gay and lesbian spokespeople are allowed, they will only be permitted to speak as victims of discrimination, not as complete human beings with their own opinions. This is the pattern: lesbians and gay men are voiceless victims; respected straight people -- librarians, teachers, nurses, grandmothers, elected officials -- are the thinking people who can consider the initiative objectively and ask people to vote "no".

     Other public campaign events, for example, rallies, will also be highly controlled: only certain signs will be permitted -- these won't mention the L, G, or H words -- and only selected spokespeople are "allowed" to speak to the media.

Targeting Voters

     In a mainstream campaign, field coordinators will be hired to oversee all direct contact with voters. This includes persuasive phone banking (calling up "undecided" voters and encouraging them to vote on our side), direct mail (sending persuasive literature to all or certain voters), literature drops (leaving literature on people's doorsteps), and door-to-door canvassing (knocking on people's doors and encouraging them, face-to--face, to vote on our side).

     Campaigns will usually limit those parts of the population they contact because they want to maximize the number of persuadable (undecided) voters they reach relative to the amount of time/energy/money they put into each field method. There are three main ways to limit voter populations to be targeted: by likelihood to vote, by persuadability, and by region.

     Limiting voters by likelihood to vote means that campaigns target their efforts to "habitual voters", which they determine by polls or by data from past elections. In Lewiston, Maine, for example, the campaign restricted its major mailing to all residents who had voted in the last two elections. Campaigns can cover lots of different regions with this method but exclude people who haven't voted recently.

     Limiting voters by persuadability means that campaigns target "undecided" voters. This is usually decided by a preliminary phone banking survey, in which voters are simply asked how they plan to vote. In Idaho, for example, two phone banking efforts were conducted during the campaign -- the first to determine the undecided voters and the second to try and persuade them.

     Limiting voters by region means that the campaign decides to focus its efforts on certain geographical areas and to do little, if anything, in other areas. The regions are picked out based on population density and real or perceived political tendencies, and also on the percentages of persuadable and habitual voters. As opposed to the methods described above, all of the voters in an area will be eliminated based on a low percentage of undecided or habitual voters. Sometimes these decisions are based on polling analysis, sometimes on simple logic, and sometimes on stereotypes. Rural areas and low-income urban neighborhoods are usually the first to go. In Lewiston, Maine, for example, three low-income Franco-American districts of the town were excluded from the literature drop, even though they had the highest population densities in the town. This was based on the knowledge of the historically low voter turnout of the areas, as well as on stereotypes about Catholics and low-inc ome people being more homophobic. In Idaho (and other states), rural counties were excluded based on the high amount of effort it would have taken to reach each voter. Other larger low-income towns were also excluded, based on their historically low turnout and/or the belief that their citizens are unusually homophobic.

     Phone banking, literature drops, and canvassing are all done by volunteers who have to follow a script as if they were in a play or working as telemarketers. They have almost no choice in what they can say to voters. No matter what questions voters ask, volunteers are required by the campaign to use a set number of responses.

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