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Monday, October 27, 2008

Elections, Propositions, and Demonstrations

As the New York Times has reported, the battle over same-sex marriage "is raging like a wind-whipped wildfire" in California. Proposition 8 on this year's ballot is an attempt to amend the California constitution and reverse a California Supreme Court decision permitting same-sex marriage. According to the Associated Press over $60 million in contributions has been spent for and against the proposition (apparently a record for a ballot initiative).

I don't want to comment on the substance of the same-sex marriage debate. Instead I have a question about one of the strategies being used to drum up support for, and opposition to, the proposition. Yesterday, across from a local McDonalds was a group of maybe 10 demonstrators with signs and placards, and they were chanting "yes on 8" as cars drove by -- usually zipping by at 40-50 mph. It's been scorching hot in Southern California this weekend, and standing on the concrete sidewalk looked brutal. A few miles later there was a group of 5 or 6 other demonstrators waving "no on 8" signs in front of a gas station (there was a single counter-demonstrator across the street with a "yes on 8" sign, looking upset that he was outgunned 6 to 1, but yelling loudly to make up for it).

I certainly understand the purpose of protests outside say the Democratic or Republican National Conventions, or a federal building, or a courthouse with a large number of demonstrators and press coverage.... but a few people outside a McDonalds or a gas station? How effective can that be? I'd be surprised if anyone driving by had a sudden startling revelation: "how could I have been so wrong, I was planning to vote one way, but now I'll vote the other!" Perhaps organizers are keeping their fingers crossed that they will get some mileage from their slogans. Certainly, both sides have been oblique in their advertising -- both rarely mentioning same-sex marriage directly. I saw a sign that said something like "Yes on 8 - Protecting California Children" - which, to make an understatement, seems a tad misleading even for those concerned with same sex marriage being mentioned in schools. But does anyone pay any attention to a handful of people on the side of a road yelling at passing cars? If anything, I tend to think it undermines their position -- frankly, seeing terribly sun-burned people, hopping up and down, and yelling nonsensically at cars (at least it sounds that way at 50 mph) has a tendency to make me want to vote the opposite regardless of what the issue is.

So, I'm interested. I am not concerned with people holding signs and staking their positions -- if that's the way someone wants to spend their weekend, all the power to them. Perhaps this is simply evidence of a thriving democracy; something to be celebrated. But is there any indication that these sort of demonstrations have any effect at all on an election?

Posted by Austen Parrish on October 27, 2008 at 01:46 AM | Permalink


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As a follow-up. Interesting post over at Concurring Opinions by Jaya Ramji-Nogales on Prop. 8. http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2008/10/proposition_8s.html#more

Posted by: AP | Oct 28, 2008 1:32:33 AM

I think another important factor is relevant in the context of socially divisive and controversial propositions. Public declarations of your position (especially when it is a group rather than a single individual making the declarations) helps voters (whatever their position) feel better about their views. I imagine folks thinking: 'I am not an evil person for favoring legal discrimination because all those families in front of the churches agree with me....' or 'I am not some hippy freak for planning to support same-sex marriage since those fairly normal looking folks over there share my view.'

This of course triggers a necessary response: the other side cannot allow their opponents to appear as if they alone represent the community's accepted view.

Additionally, I expect there are other practical, political elements: folks who volunteer to gather as a group for a purpose and then publicly assert it are unlikely to be later swayed in their views and are more likely to feel energized to express their opinion in other fora. And thus the cycle begins...

Posted by: ecc | Oct 27, 2008 12:55:23 PM

Good point re: the permit.

I appreciate the self-expression value. And mobilizing the base makes sense. But I'm still skeptical on whether it has much impact on the election one way or the other. Perhaps I'm just lazy and would be more inclined to use a bumper-sticker or a window/lawn sign for self-expression purposes.

Posted by: AP | Oct 27, 2008 11:29:25 AM

And there also is a inherent value in self-expression, in getting out and expressing oneself on this issue. And the message will be seen, even if not responded to, by cars driving by on a busy street. Although perhaps some cars will honk or drivers shout in agreement, thus creating a group mode of expression.

Plus, you can protest in front of McDonald's or a gas station without a permit--it is harder to do that at a courthouse.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 27, 2008 11:18:02 AM

I suppose that those demonstrators are not trying to change minds but mobilize votes: They are reminding members of their own faction to check the right "down ballot" box on November 4th. (Of course, this strategy will work only if your demonstrators displayed some marker indicating their general ideology -- crucifixes, peace signs, etc -- so that the drivers whizzing by would have a reminder about the political orientation of Prop 8).

Posted by: Rick Hills | Oct 27, 2008 8:59:40 AM

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