These are early thoughts only. They are some crude (and at times rambling) musings penned on the morning after the night before, but it is based on reviewing some notes put together back in late February for the Yes Equality campaign.
Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are four key elements which I see as essential to the success of the Yes Equality ground and air campaigns. My analysis, though that is an over glorified to describe this, is confined to the campaign tactics and machinery. I am primarily looking at this as a campaign, but that is not to dismiss the importance of the arguments and the justice of the cause.
This was an appeal to the basic fairness of Irish voters
This, I believe, was the key campaign narrative. The campaign was underpinned by the belief that Irish people are fair minded. Ireland and her people are welcoming and confident. This vote was simply about making the laws reflect that reality. By voting yes people were just voting to give gay people what everyone one else already had – to do otherwise would be fundamentally unfair. This was at the core of message powerfully delivered by former President Mary McAleese and former Commissioner Marie Geoghegan-Quinn.
The battleground in this campaign were the soft Yes voters, identified in the polls. The goal was to have a campaign which appealed to these voters that was polite; but not a timid. These were the people who feel good telling pollsters that they are ready to vote YES. The Yes side needed to re-assure them that their instinct was right and that they are right to vote YES. The main effort, via ground campaign and air campaign in the months of March, April and May was to stop these well-disposed voters from straying.
This was not a battle between liberalism and conservatism.
To keep the soft Yes voters and to emphasise the basic fairness argument the campaign could not and must not be about “dragging Ireland into the 21st century”. Neither could it be portrayed as just another element in some constitutional crusade.
This was a stand alone campaign for marriage equality. As such it was campaigning for marriage. The Yes side wanted to see marriage remain as a fundamental institution in our national life, it recognised that society benefits from having more strong marriages – these are quintessentially conservative values. Though I was loathe to quote David Cameron in any of the briefing material I produced, his observation:
“I support gay marriage not despite the fact that I am conservative, but because I am conservative”
was a powerful message
The purpose of the campaign was to get 50% +1 of those who turn out in May to vote Yes. It was NOT about being proven right or correcting the political wrongs of the past: it was about informing a decision what was as much emotional as it was rational. The aim was to make it feel good to Vote Yes. For that reason the core Yes campaign avoided criticizing members of the ‘No’ camp for their deeply held views on morality, but it was firm in identifying where the No side was raising baseless fears to deliberately mislead and confuse voters.
Making the Yes campaign a popular, mass campaign
One of the first rules I learned on getting involved in politics was: “a vote worth getting is worth asking for”
The Yes campaign showed how true that adage is today, even in an age of social media and communications technology. The Yes campaign was determined to make sure it stretched into every community and town land across the country, and boy did they make that happen. While the emergence and organisation of Yes Equality campaign teams across the country was facilitated through the use of a range of platforms: Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc. those teams practised traditional campaigning methods like door to door canvassing and leafleting.
This ensured that the naysayers could not dismiss the Yes campaign as just the efforts of a Dublin 4/meeja elite – well, it actually didn’t stop them from trying to do that, it just exposed how stupid they looked when they tried.
The Yes campaign mobilised and energised soft yes voters with a dynamic, youthful (though not exclusively) and enthusiastic ground campaign which was manned by people in their own communities who were part of that community and who looked and sounded like their own communities.
One final and personal observation on this point. Back in 2013 (I think) Marriage Equality produced an an extremely powerful pre-campaign online advert which showed a guy going door to door to ask permission to marry the person he loved. It pointed out just how unfair and unjust it was that a small section of our society needed to get the permission of the majority to exercise a simple and basic right. In my opinion the real effectiveness of the Yes equality ground campaign was that so many 1000s of other people: mothers/brothers, gay straight, young/old joined with him on that difficult canvas which perhaps is why it had such resonance across the county
Not allowing the vote to be used to kick the Government.
Back in 2012 Minister Leo Varadkar opined that he did not think referendums were “very democratic”. He was not all that wrong. Many referendums on complex and what the Americans might call “beltway” issues have been turned into votes on how the Government is performing at the time, particularly when there are low turnouts.
It was vital for the Yes Equality campaign that the referendum not be hijacked and turned into a test of the Government’s popularity – especially when the Government parties were not exactly at the peak of their popularity. Yes Equality was very effective in getting across the message that the issue was far too important and personal. They did this via the three points above, but the active involvement of the opposition parties was also essential. Yes Equality’s political director Tiernan Brady was pivotal to this.
Though the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and the party’s Justice Spokesperson Niall Collins were both very strong and convincing Yes campaigners, it was the active campaigning by parties and groups such as Sinn Féin, PBP and AAA and independents like Catherine Murphy that helped stop the vote turning into a public judgement on the Irish water/Siteserv debacle.
They could campaign on the basis that people vote for equality this year and defer their anger on austerity etc until the next general election. Though I would not claim the AAA poster pictured left was a “game-changer”, it does makes the point well and demonstrates the thinking and strategy behind the AAA’s Marriage Equality campaign. I do wonder what was going through the mind of the person who designed the AAA’s other Yes poster though.
…and there you have it….
The list above it not intended as a definitive analysis.
I haven’t touched on the effectiveness and scope of the Yes Equality Social Media campaign or its superb marketing and branding campaign (look at the number of YES and TÁ badges to be found on the lapels of people in the run up to the vote.
Nor have I gone into detail on Yes Equality mobilising non typical influencers across the campaign. While the No campaign was populated for the most part by people who you expected to be No, the Yes campaign looked to reach beyond its immediate cohort (and beyond Dublin) and attracted a range of important interventions by people such as former President Mary McAleese, former Commissioner Marie Geoghegan-Quinn, Donegal Gaelic footballer Eamon McGee, Daniel O’Donnell, Robbie Keane, Brian O’Driscoll.
Neither have I looked at the strategic flaws and failed narrative of the No campaign…. mmmh… come to think of I might go off, make a pot of tea and start work on that piece.