Advocates for and against same-sex marriage have learned what resonates and what doesn't with voters and lawmakers after more than a decade of debate in public hearings, ad campaigns, street demonstrations and lobbying state legislatures.
Demands for equal rights by one side and criticism of a homosexual lifestyle by the other side have given way to a more controlled and calculatingly civil discourse that focuses on family, love, commitment and children — by both sides.
To be sure, both sides remain worlds apart in defining a family and determining what's best for children and society at large. But as voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington prepare to vote on marriage referendums in November, the campaigns for and against same-sex marriage are employing carefully crafted tactics and talking points from lessons learned in previous campaigns.
This year won't be as sweeping as 2004 — when 12 states, including Utah, passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and woman — but it could mark a turning point in the marriage debate where the winners gain considerable momentum going into the next election cycle. And the pressure is on the same-sex marriage movement to gain some real traction beyond public opinion polls.
"For 2012, the same-sex marriage supporters have to win and if they don't it will show there is difficulty going forward," said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York who has monitored the marriage debate for several years.
Officials from both sides speak optimistically about their prospects in November.
For the first time, same-sex marriage proponents have proposed a constitutional amendment in Maine that would allow same-sex couples to marry. The opposite is happening in Minnesota, where a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage will be on the ballot. In May, voters made North Carolina the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In Washington and Maryland, opponents to same-sex marriage have gathered the necessary signatures to put before the entire electorate marriage equality laws previously passed by lawmakers.
Despite the defeat in North Carolina, Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Coalition, sees the tide turning for same-sex marriage because supporters have gone on the offensive reaching out to voters on the doorsteps of their homes and community gathering places, talking about relationships and what marriage means to them.
"More and more people are getting to know gay and lesbian couples in their communities at a very baseline level," he said. "As people share their stories and wrap their heads around what marriage means for gay and lesbian couples, support increases."
Cole-Schwartz explained that past tactics of focusing on legal arguments about equal rights didn't resonate with undecided voters or opponents because those aren't the reasons people get married.
"There's a disconnect," he said. "You can get off track when you focus too much on the rights and benefits of marriage and don't effectively communicate the true reason (for marriage), which is to make that lifelong commitment."
Those personal stories about commitment and family played a role in Maryland's legislature passing a bill legalizing gay marriage, according to Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a lead organization advising groups against same-sex marriage.
"(Same-sex marriage proponents) are trying to compare the needs of their families with the needs of those headed by a husband and wife," said Sprigg, who testified against the bill. "Some of the legislators who changed their votes from last year cited that type of testimony or constituent visits or calls as being instrumental in changing their minds."
Chandler explained that the same-sex marriage advocates didn't stumble upon this change in messaging and tactics by accident. "This cohesive set of talking points … is created by marketing and consulting firms that find out which message has the most impact. That's true for opposition as well," he said.
Sprigg said same-sex marriage opponents have stuck to a consistent message since winning the Prop 8 battle in California: What is in the best interest of the children?
"Children do best with a mom and dad," Sprigg said. "It's an easy argument to make, and it gets to the core fundamental differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. They (a same-sex couple) cannot provide a child with a father and mother. That's one thing they can never do."
The traditional marriage camp has also recently been armed with studies casting doubt on previous claims that children raised by same-sex couples fare the same and sometimes better than those raised by parents of the opposite sex.
But even without the studies, opponents of same sex marriage say that a discussion about the types of homes where children would best thrive has been the most effective way to persuade an undecided voter.
"Most people don't think it would be the same if they had two of their dads or two of their moms raising them," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "It goes to the heart of our argument that men and women are different and complementary, and that accepting that difference is not bigotry but truth and biology."
Sprigg explained that getting off that message and delving into the moral merits of a gay or lesbian lifestyle can easily steer the conversation into accusations of stereotyping and personal attacks against gays and lesbians. Those arguments can ignite religious conservatives but usually backfire with more moderate voters.
The NOM website has talking points to guide its followers away from such pitfalls.
Courts will decide
Results from the November election will tell whether the move by same-sex marriage proponents to a more personal, family-oriented approach is able to shift the momentum in their favor.
Cole-Schwartz acknowledges that the movement hasn't succeeded in fending off constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or overturning law passed by state Legislatures. But he believes if the amendment blitz of 2004 were this year, the results wouldn't have been the same. He even considers the recent loss in a southern, religiously conservative state like North Carolina as progress.
"We moved the needle there," he said. "I would wager that in another eight years we would win in North Carolina."
According to Cole-Schwartz, past equal rights battles indicate that time and history are on the side of "marriage equality" and that it is inevitable that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide.
But organizations like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage don't seem too concerned about the changing tactics of the pro-same-sex marriage movement or public opinion polls that show growing support for legalizing same-sex marriage, particularly among younger voters.
They say the polls have yet to bear out what has actually happened at the ballot box. And as long as they stay on message and keep the debate out of the state houses and on the general ballot, the union between a man and woman will remain the only legal definition of marriage.
But Chandler said the real victories for either side won't come through the legislative or ballot-initiative battles being waged right now. Instead, it will be the Supreme Court that eventually defines marriage, Chandler predicted, and that won't happen for another five to 10 years.
"(The Supreme Court justices) tend to wait until the national dialogue has settled onto some position," he said. "If they weigh in too soon, it can create too much controversy."