Wedded to the ballot

But at ballot box, same-sex marriage is no sure thing

This has been the TV season of gay couplings — what may be “The New Normal,” to use the title of NBC’s sitcom. The Gay Alliance Against Defamation recently reported that the number of LGBT characters this year is the highest ever recorded. And shortly after Vice President Joseph Biden spoke to a showbiz crowd in April, he went on “Meet the Press” and credited the sitcom “Will & Grace” for educating the American public about gay and lesbian issues.

Even Mitt Romney, who has said he opposes same-sex marriages, and even civil unions, when asked to name his favorite TV show, pointed to one that features a gay couple, “Modern Family,” perhaps trying to soften his stance on the subject.

So why wouldn’t a spate of ballot initiatives — four this year concerning same-sex marriage — be certain to turn out in favor of liberalization of the laws?

While polls show a shift in public opinion on the issue, with showbiz helping to shape perceptions in myriad ways, there is still an aura of caution when it comes to the ballot box.

Reasons for this can be found in “Question One,” a new “War Room”-like documentary from Joe Fox and James Nubile opening this week in New York, about the 2009 fight over a Maine ballot initiative to restrict same-sex marriage in that state. The pic shows that opponents of the initiative, despite seemingly doing everything right — canvassing and calling voters with political precision — had their hopes dashed on Election Night, when the ban on gay nuptials passed by a 52% to 48% margin.

“Question One” may leave viewers vexed, but it will also make them a bit cynical. While the pic devotes plenty of time to the Faustian bargain made by Marc Mutty, an employee of the archdiocese of Portland who appears to want nothing to do with the issue but was instructed by the local archbishop to chair the campaign to restrict same-sex marriage in the state, it also provides insights into the arguments that may have resonated with voters.

In one scene, a radio talkshow host argues that pop culture already provides ample examples of gay unions. But later, an ad aired by those who oppose same-sex marriage conveys the sense that even if a voter accepts gays and lesbians wholeheartedly, it’s still OK to oppose same-sex unions.

While it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that spot made the difference in Maine, it’s telling that Frank Schubert, the uber consultant who guided California’s same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8, and acted as a kind of puppet-master in the Maine campaign, is looking to use similar commercials in the four states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — in which the issue is being considered this November, according to the New York Times. “Everyone has a right to love who they choose,” an ad for the gay-marriage ban in Minnesota says, “but nobody has a right to redefine marriage.”

What arguments work and what do not are far from certain. There’s still a debate as to what went wrong among gay marriage supporters in the campaign to defeat California’s Prop. 8 — including that showbiz’s support came too little and too late. This year, there’s concern among some LGBT activists that not enough same-sex couples and families are featured in ad spots, even more perplexing given the prevalence of such couples in primetime.

But the biz certainly is not arriving late: Stars are doing PSAs, some industry money is coming in , and there is a bit more optimism, as polls show there’s a very good chance that at least one state will break through and favor same-sex marriage. Brian Ellner, senior strategist in the Human Rights Campaign’s successful effort to win legislative support for same-sex marriage in New York in 2011, enlisted Julianne Moore, Sean Avery, Joan Rivers, Ethan Hawke and a host of political and sports figures in PSAs to call for passage.

The stars “created a feeling of constant momentum and widespread support,” Ellner says. This year, he’s among the co-founders of TheFour.com, a social media campaign with a daily dose of messaging, often from showbiz, on the ballot initiatives (which support same-sex unions in Washington and Maine). Pink, Lady Gaga and Josh Charles have appeared in content, and a photo of Bruce Springsteen along with a quote of support was “enormously effective,” Ellner says. (The HRC’s efforts also include a sweepstakes in which entrants — and donors — can win a dinner with Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the stars of “Modern Family.”)

If those in the four states vote to allow greater freedom, surely primetime and the bandwagon of famous figures will be given credit for having played a role in establishing a kind of inevitability on the issue. If they fail, it will be more consternation, even wonderment, of what went wrong.

One thing is certain: The string of losses by gay rights supporters on state ballots has hardly stopped the movement, which may be even more emboldened in adversity. Knowing that there will be anger if the anti-same sex marriage side prevails, Mutty says near the end of “Question One,” “I think the biggest price to pay is winning.”