PHIPPSBURG, Maine — Many of the Mainers stepping past the piles of chopped wood at Bisson’s general store in this small town on the craggy Northeast coast have come around to the idea of letting same-sex couples marry.
“It’s a different world now,” said David Gray, 58, a foreman at the shipyard down the road, who was “on the fence” about same-sex marriage when it was on the ballot here three years ago.
Now, he’s going to support it in November, when Mainers will weigh in on the issue again.
Voters in Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state will also be asked their verdict on same-sex marriage in November. Across the country, voters have turned aside gay marriage 32 times, but there are signs that sentiment has changed: In 2010, for the first time, more Americans supported it than opposed it; President Obama expressed his support for same-sex marriage this year.
In Minnesota, prominent sports figures have voiced their support of same-sex couples; in Washington, wealthy business executives have donated millions to the campaign for same-sex marriage there. And in Maryland, a poll released Thursday by the Washington Post found likely voters supporting same-sex marriage by a 52%-43% margin.
Along with Maryland, Maine appears to represent the best chance at passing a law at the ballot box permitting gay couples to wed, strategists say. Recent polls show that in Maine, more than half of voters now support same-sex marriage, a reversal since the state voted against it in 2009.
The turnaround can partly be attributed to an in-depth grass-roots campaign employing a tactic not often used with issues: approaching voters and trying to change their minds on their doorsteps. Volunteers and staff members of Mainers United for Marriage, a pro-gay-marriage group, have fanned out across the state’s 16 counties for the last two years to knock on strangers’ doors and talk to them. Mainers United estimates that it has reached 200,000 people, or 15% of Maine’s population.
A young man knocked on Linda Michaud’s door in a rural neighborhood outside Bangor and talked about why he hoped his brother would be able to get married. For half an hour, the two chatted, said Michaud — about his brother, her lesbian cousins, and her Catholic faith, which she said prohibited her from endorsing same-sex marriage.
“I was against it at first because I was a Catholic, but then they sat down with me and we talked,” said Michaud, 64, who lives in an area where mailboxes line the streets and the trees are already starting to lose their leaves. “I’m going to vote yes.”
Finding people at their homes has long been an effective way of reaching voters, but campaigns usually make only glancing contact. The tactic of having 30-minute conversations with a large segment of the population is unusual, said Alan Gerber, a professor of political science at Yale University.
“A door-to-door education campaign like this for an issue is fairly uncommon,” he said. “But there’s every reason to believe these folks are doing something very sensible and likely to be effective.”
Mainers United says it is merely replicating conversations occurring all around the country between voters and their gay and lesbian friends and family members. Its message is also different from most campaigns, said campaign manager Matt McTighe: Volunteers talk less about gay rights and more about marriage as a stabilizing force in society. He says that given enough time, the strategy is applicable in other, larger states.
“It’s about literally meeting voters where they are,” McTighe said. “To be able to say to other states, ‘Look, it is possible — if you invest the time, do the work, try some of the things we did here — it can be done; you can hit the reset button.’”
Opponents say that if the Maine referendum — Question 1 — passes, it will be because of the lengthy grass-roots effort in the state. But they emphasize the strategy can’t work everywhere.
“Maine, population-wise, is smaller than a medium-sized city,” said Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Protect Maine Marriage (he’s also running the campaigns in the three other states). “It’s much easier for a group of activists to reach people on a grass-roots level.”
Finding volunteers through churches, Protect Maine Marriage is holding phone banks and knocking on doors, and will launch a TV campaign Monday emphasizing the uniqueness of marriage and the “consequences that people have experienced when marriage has been redefined,” Schubert said.
There’s no guarantee that same-sex marriage will be approved; polls about gay marriage are often inaccurate, and voters can be fickle. For many, like Gerald Freeman, 69, of Manchester, Maine, even a few in-depth calls were not enough.
“They were very convincing in terms of how they wanted me to vote for it, but it’s not enough,” he said. “I’ll never change my mind on that.”
Still, the pro-gay-marriage group’s staffers, who now number 130, have their own favorite stories of voters they’ve persuaded. Owen Hill, 23, thinks of a nurse in Biddeford who warmed to him because his mother is also a nurse — the two talked about the woman’s gay co-worker and his longtime partner. Allie McCleary, 22, reached an older man whose daughter is gay; though opposed to gay marriage, he began to rethink his position when he started discussing his son’s intolerance of gay and lesbian couples. Ellen Ward, 56, spoke to a veteran about the importance of his wife in his life.
“You really realize you can make change by talking to people,” said Ward, sitting in a small room of the campaign’s Portland headquarters, where she and other staffers often make 100 calls a night. “You can see the wheels turning — you know that you’ve planted seeds.”
When Mainers United started the campaign after the loss in 2009, McTighe said they didn’t know how long it would take to start to change voters’ minds, and whether they’d try to get the issue on the ballot in 2011, 2012 or 2020. But it slowly became evident that public opinion was moving to their side, he said.
It doesn’t hurt that pro-gay-marriage groups have outraised their opponents $1.9 million to $82,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Mainers United has funded television ads featuring nontraditional messengers — such as firefighters and veterans — speaking on behalf of same-sex marriage.
Mainers United might be fortunate, too, that many in the state have the same attitude about life as neighboring New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die.” When asked about their position on the issue as they went in and out of the general store, many said they thought same-sex couples should be able to do whatever they wanted.
“I don’t have any reason not to support it — it’s not like they’re hurting anyone,” said Lisa Wallace, the tax collector and treasurer of Phippsburg, which was split almost evenly on the issue in 2009 — 587 people wanted to repeal the law allowing gay couples to marry, 575 wanted to keep it.
Her husband has a different reason for supporting same-sex marriage. Adam Wallace voted against it in 2009. Now, he said, he’s going to vote for it.
“I just figured, it’s been on the ballot long enough,” he said. “I’m just sick of seeing it.”