D.C. media firm 76 Words played critical role in the DFL’s legislative and amendment campaigns
Less than two weeks before Election Day, Minnesota for Marriage released its hardest-hitting television commercial in support of passing a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. The ad featured Massachusetts parents David and Tonia Parker.
“After Massachusetts redefined marriage, local schools taught it to children in second grade, including the school our son attended,” David Parker said in the spot.
Minnesotans United for All Families, the primary group opposing the amendment, had been waiting for the volatile linkage of schools and gay marriage to emerge as an issue. They’d previously seen it used effectively by ban proponents during campaigns in Maine and California.
Even before the pro-amendment ad was up on the airwaves, Minnesotans United had released its own spot addressing the issue. It featured a couple from Edina, “Elizabeth and John,” emphasizing that kids learn their values — including the Golden Rule — from their parents.
“Someday, allowing everyone the freedom to marry won’t change our kids’ values,” Elizabeth said in the spot.
“Because they get those values from us,” John added.
Cristine Almeida, who served as chairwoman of Minnesotans United, said the ad was conceived to neutralize the effectiveness of the issue. “Because they won this 30 other times, their playbook has been largely the same, and we spent a huge amount of time studying it,” Almeida said. “So we knew roughly what they were going to come with and the things that they were going to use to try and scare people.”
That commercial and most of the radio and television ads utilized by Minnesotans United were produced by the Washington, D.C.-based media firm 76 Words. Founded less than two years ago by Democratic strategists Matt Erickson and Sarah Flowers, the consulting company played an outsized role in Minnesota’s elections this year. In addition to the gay marriage amendment, 76 Words was the media firm for the DFL House caucus and for Our Vote Our Future, the primary group opposing the proposed amendment requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. The firm and its allies ended up running the table, with both amendments going down to defeat and Democrats winning back control of the House.
The firm’s ties to Minnesota DFLers run deep: Erickson and Flowers have previously worked with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, former state auditor Judi Dutcher and former state Sen. Tarryl Clark. They also worked with the DFL House caucus in each of the past three election cycles prior to starting their own firm.
76 Words is also distinctive in that it works closely with a licensed psychologist, Phyllis Watts, to help determine what messages will be effective in communicating with voters. Watts was involved in the media campaigns targeting the two amendments from their inception. When they made their pitch to Minnesotans United, she had a diagram of a brain that was used to describe how voters make decisions.
“I’m in from the ground floor,” said Watts, who’s based in Sacramento, California. “It’s very unique.”
The allies had established a track record of defeating hot-button constitutional amendments. In 2011, for instance, they designed the media campaign that helped defeat the anti-abortion “personhood” amendment in Mississippi that was widely expected to pass.
For the marriage amendment in Minnesota, many of the ads featured individuals or couples openly wrestling with the issue of gay marriage and ultimately coming down against the amendment. One ad featured a suburban couple, identified as Catholic Republicans, recounting their experiences with a lesbian couple that moved into the neighborhood and how that changed their views on the issue.
Another featured a former Lutheran Bishop, Herbert Chilstrom, and his wife discussing how their views evolved after meeting with gay men who wanted the right to marry. “These brothers and sisters in Christ deserve my full support,” Chilstrom said. “That’s why we’re voting no.”
Erickson says the approach was developed based on research from national gay rights groups, lessons learned from past campaigns and the insights of Watts. “One thing we kept coming back to on this campaign was the notion of the journey,” Erickson said, “helping model for voters the process that we wanted them to undergo, recognizing that this was an issue that maybe they hadn’t come to a full conclusion on.”
The photo ID amendment campaign took a different tack. Because the issue was not nearly as high-profile as the gay marriage referendum, they sought to plant seeds of doubt in voters’ minds through credible messengers. One spot featured excerpts from some of the 64 newspaper editorials that weighed in against the proposal. Another featured former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson and current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton discussing why they were opposed to the measure.
“These are substantive folks who are in your state, and so they listen to them,” Watts said. “It was very hard to write them off.”
Our Vote Our Future didn’t have nearly the financial resources that the marriage amendment foes were able to amass. But Luchelle Stevens, the group’s campaign manager, said that didn’t dissuade 76 Words from getting involved. “When they came on board we were very clear with them about what the challenges were on this, both in terms of funding and also the uphill campaign that we were going to journey down,” Stevens said.
The DFL House campaign involved distinctively different challenges as well. Because it’s difficult to effectively target television ad buys to legislative districts, much of the campaign was focused on radio ads. For instance, in one spot supporting DFL Rep. John Persell, “tax detective Ben Bemidji” goes in search of the state’s homestead property tax credit. His discovery? Republicans eliminated it. Persell ended up winning by double digits over GOP Rep. Larry Howes in what had been expected to be an extremely close race.
Erickson said that because state legislative races generally fly under the radar screen, they needed an approach that would get people’s attention.
“With the House campaign, we had to bring a lot more creativity to the table,” he said. “You’re obligated to be more conceptual.”
Richard Carlbom, who served as campaign manager for Minnesotans United, credits the success of the media campaign to the willingness of 76 Words to listen to criticism and make changes. “They were more than willing and able and happy to go back to the drawing board, to really take different swings at it,” Carlbom said. “So over the course of the campaign we developed several commercials that never aired because we just kept going back, again and again, to make sure that we got it right. That’s something that is critically important.”