The resounding Yes to a vote on marriage equality has many lessons for voter engagement and campaign mobilization more generally.
The Yes Equality campaign was a clear endorsement of the potential of a bottom up, grass-roots campaign. It was crowdfunded and heavily invested in social media. One of the most notable aspects of the vote was the fact that formerly disengaged communities, particularly younger and working class voters, turned out in large numbers to vote Yes.
The demographics are not yet clear; we are still in the field conducting research. But we do know that some 60,000 voters registered on the supplementary or late register and the initial evidence suggests that turnout on this register reached around 80 percent by close of polls.
Many of these were young voters. The Union of Students of Ireland recruited almost 28,000 students over recent months. Following years of the politics of austerity, the young were given something they could believe in, campaign for and vote for. And they did. Thousands of recent emigrants to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe flew home to vote, determined not to be excluded by the almost complete absence of postal voting in Ireland.
It was also likely the first successful social media campaign in Ireland. Social media volunteers in their late teens and 20s set up Web sites for supportive videos, pop-up shops for merchandise, and viral hashtags on Twitter including #hometovote, #votermotor and #marref. Veteran campaign managers were surprised by the willingness of the public to pay for political materials such as badges and T-shirts which became much coveted items in schools and on the streets.
Interestingly, highly deprived inner-city areas in Dublin which usually see turnout levels of about 25 percent saw more than double those numbers Friday. The Yes vote was as high as 80 percent in some of these deprived areas.
Of course, we don’t know yet why this happened, and it will be a week or more before we can provide good evidence. However we can hypothesize about a few possible factors: the role of personal canvassing and personal stories; the equality debate and the lived reality of modern Irish families.
Both sides learned from American campaigning lessons. The No campaign was based largely on the airwaves, where strict referendum regulation ensured no advertising and a 50:50 balance on all TV news and current affairs shows and items. It also paid for a large number of YouTube advertisements.
Mirroring the Obama campaign’s 50 states strategy, the Yes campaign ran a ground campaign with teams in every constituency. It focused on providing messaging for the mainstream and not the LGBT community. Their strategy was to go after every vote, not just the supportive base. By last Sunday, five days before polling they had knocked on every door in every urban center. This allowed a very successful get out the vote campaign across all constituencies and on social media in the closing days of the campaign.
There had been debate on who should engage in doorstep campaigning, given the conflicting evidence about campaigning strategies based on personal stories (which would suggest that the most effective campaigners would be LGBT people) and campaigns based on “people like me” (which would suggest that the best campaigners would be fellow locals). For much more on this see here.
The Yes Equality strategy allowed local groups to run their own teams with twice weekly roundup on results at the campaign headquarters. This combined what were viewed as the strengths of both approaches. Local campaigners worked alongside young and older LGBT people asking for a personal vote of support.
I observed a few of these doorstep efforts. What was remarkable was the difference to the usual partisan political campaign. Neighbors came out to each other on the doorstep and asked for their support. Others told stories of gay friends or family whom they wanted to be given a resounding message of acceptance and equality. With a few exceptions, the responses were positive, warm and accepting.
In addition, as an unintended consequence, it appears that the framing around equality may also have resonated with working-class communities that were already disenfranchised and disillusioned with the political establishment in a post austerity environment.
The No campaign focused on traditional family values with messages such as “Children need a Mother and a Father.” Given the lived reality of many Irish families today, this likely resulted in a backlash in communities with large numbers of single-parent families. Anecdotally, canvassers found that there was resentment against this perceived slight.
Summing it up, the peculiarities of Irish constitutional law mean that a referendum was necessary to achieve marriage equality. While many feared putting the rights of a minority to a majoritarian vote, the result has mobilized citizens and led to an historic campaign and outcome. If other campaigners in other countries choose to go down this route the clear message is that a well planned, positive campaign can yield results.
Jane Suiter is a political scientist and director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University.