On November 2, 2010:
(1) A repeal of Prop 8, in some form, will be on the California ballot.
(2) About $60 million will have been raised in the effort to repeal Prop 8.
(3) The repeal will fail.
(4) The margin of loss for SSM advocates in California will be greater than the margin of loss in November 2008, probably in the neighborhood of 46% "yes" (for repeal) and 54% "no" (against repeal).
How likely is this scenario? Prediction #1 is clearly the direction in which SSM advocates in California seem headed. There is no enthusiasm among activists for waiting until 2012, much less 2014 or 2016. Moreover, although organizational leaders and strategists just four months ago seemed to be leaning against a 2010 repeal effort because it was too soon and would fail, the momentum has swung in favor of 2010. Even Equality California, more strategically conservative and cautious than most street activists, is leaning strongly towards it, reporting that a "majority" of those they've polled favored 2010 over 2012. The California Supreme Court's recent decision upholding Prop 8 seems to have galvanized the 2010 effort.
Prediction #2 is, if anything, a lowball estimate. SSM advocates raised just over $40 million between June and November 2008. It was a huge sum, but it will not be enough next time. It's a baseline. Given that everyone will expect a close vote, and given that everyone knows California will be the end of the beginning if SSM wins politically there, both sides will be even more highly motivated to donate once the initiative reaches the ballot. Without a presidential election to suck up contributions, more money will be available for social-issues campaigning. We should expect at least a 50% increase in the amount needed.
But it won't be enough, which is why prediction #3 will come true. Anti-SSM activists are fully aware of the stakes and are fully aware of how close the outcome may be. There are many more people who passionately oppose gay marriage than who passionately support it, even in California. This was crystal clear last November, when supporters of Prop 8 simply out-muscled us on the ground in every part of the state except a few neighborhoods in a few cities. There are areas where our side was completely unrepresented. I spoke to an organizer supporting Prop 8 who told me, "We didn't even see you guys out there." Some things can be done to reduce the gap, but the brute math is still there and won't have changed that dramatically by 2010. I also think we'll probably need one more loss at the polls in California before tacticians on our side make the proposal as broadly acceptable as possible -- for example, by including in the repeal substantial conscience protections for religious individuals and organizations. These aren't needed as a matter of law, but they are helpful as a matter of politics.
Moreover, prediction #4 will come true because the 52%-48% margin by which we lost in November was deceivingly close. Everything else being equal, the conditions were about as favorable for SSM supporters in California last November as they are likely to be for many years. They aren't likely to be as favorable in 2010. This is true for several reasons: First, 2008 was a presidential election year, when turnout is higher and when more mainstream, less ideologically committed, voters dominate. 2010 will be a gubernatorial election in the state, which means there will be a somewhat higher proportion of traditionally conservative, committed, and disciplined voters. Second, 2008 was a bad year for Republicans. 2010 will likely be a better year in general for Republicans since mid-term elections are usually good for the party out of power. Sorry to say it, but good years for Republicans are usually bad years for gay rights. Third, gay marriage was the status quo in 2008, however briefly, and meant that gay couples were actually marrying. It will not be the status quo in 2010. People have a status quo bias. Fourth, the ballot language on Prop 8 reflected the status quo by indicating that it would "eliminate rights," something Americans don't like to do. In 2010, nobody will lose existing rights if voters refuse to repeal Prop 8. The ballot language may be friendly to SSM supporters in 2010, but it can't be as friendly as it was in 2008. Fifth, supporters of SSM needed a "no" vote to prevail in 2008. In 2010, they will need a "yes" vote. There is a small built-in bias (maybe 1-2%) for "no" votes. Sixth, some voters will resent being asked to vote on something they just voted on.
The kinds of voters who are affected by these factors aren't ones heavily invested in SSM, on either side. SSM doesn't hurt them, but it doesn't directly help them or anybody they know, either. They have low stakes in the outcome, but their votes count as much as those who have high stakes. They can be moved by mild nudges that shouldn't matter in principle, like resentment over voting again so soon, or by an effective ad campaign. They may be only 5-8% of the electorate but everyone agrees they will make the difference.
The longer we wait for repeal, the more likely we'll win. This assumes that younger voters continue to support SSM, that older voters gradually get used to the idea, and that the oldest die-hard opponents succumb to certain actuarial realities over time. So, all else being equal, 2012 would more likely produce a victory for SSM than would 2010. And 2014 or 2016 would be even more likely, although gaming results that far out is hazardous because of political factors that have nothing to do with repealing Prop 8 (like whether Obama serves a second term and Republicans take back the White House in 2016).
What would be the harm in rolling the dice in 2010, even if 2012 is a better bet? We might still win in 2010, after all, which would be great. But what if we lose in 2010? We just put it back on the ballot in 2012, then 2014, then 2016, until we win.
The problem is that losing has consequences beyond the immediate loss. Initiatives -- from gathering the needed signatures to running an effective campaign to winning -- require a huge investment of money, people, and time. Such resources are finite. The $60 million or more that will be spent in 2010 could go to other things, like state and congressional elections or fighting a possible SSM repeal (Maine? Iowa?) or amendment ban in another state. Those volunteers and organizers could be doing other productive things with their time. And losing in 2010, especially if the margin is greater than in 2008, will be deflating. It will harm morale. It will scare off legislators elsewhere. And it will be taken (incorrectly) as a sign that the tide is beginning to turn against SSM, with numerous political consequences in the short term. Losing doesn't mean you start from scratch the next time you try. It means you start from scratch with a bigger political, psychological, and financial burden. Waiting until 2012 would be better, in this sense, than losing in 2010 and trying again in 2012.
The only thing that can stop the mad dash to 2010 is donors, both inside and outside California. They can refuse to fund the initiative drive, which will mean that it will fail to make the ballot. That's what I hope will happen. Supporting SSM does not mean pressing for it everywhere, at any time, by any means. It means thinking hard about the choices, the likely outcomes, and the consequences of those outcomes.
But if a repeal makes it to the ballot in 2010, we'll have no choice but to join the fight.