Overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell


Situation

When President Obama signed the bill repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on December 22, 2010, he completed a long journey for the gay community, particularly for those who serve or have served in the U.S. military. The legislation also closed a circle for this firm. 

Serving as President Clinton’s pollster in 1993 and 1994, this firm dealt with the fallout of the President’s decision to open this debate early in his term and later wrote candidly about the political price of focusing on this issue when voters wanted more attention on the economy. It was therefore, with great enthusiasm and interest that this firm joined with the Center for American Progress to develop messaging to change this unjust policy. 


In the last 17 years, the world turned. Acceptance of the LGBT community has grown on all measures, including support for marriage equality nearing 50 percent in some national surveys. At the outset, support for repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell reached 70 percent in some independent surveys. So the strategic goals of this research changed. Rather than building support, we sought to create more urgency among supporters. Rather than trying to convert swing voters, we sought to minimize resistance among one group broadly opposed to change, the U.S. military.

Solution

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research executed a series of focus groups among voters and military personnel; the military groups included both officers and enlisted members and represented all four service branches. The firm followed up this research with a quantitative survey of both voters and military personnel. With the Center for American Progress, we briefed key stakeholders and spokespeople in this debate, including key offices on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

This research helped reframe the debate in a basic way. The central argument of advocates was that this change made the military stronger, as it would widen the recruitment base and no longer force the discharge of Arab linguists and other specialists who were disproportionately gay. The research showed some merit to this argument, at least among voters, but also certain fragility under scrutiny. Voters did not believe the gay community made up a large enough proportion of the population to make much difference either way, and military participants noted that they lose more people for being overweight than through Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. 

The strongest articulation of our message was a shorter, simpler point that in the military, sexual orientation is irrelevant to someone doing his or her job well. In short, we paraphrased Barry Goldwater’s quip, “you only need to shoot straight.” What was critical is that this same framework also worked well among the military. 

Some of the military participants in our research were frank about their opposition to changing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, though this opposition did not run particularly deep. Most also believed that gay people could do the job as well as straight people; this conviction was born of actual experience of serving with men and women they knew to be gay. At the same time, they expressed more practical reservations about how this change would impact their lives. Officers and non-commissioned officers, for example, needed reassurance that they would be protected from charges of discrimination when legitimately and appropriately disciplining a gay soldier. We recommended that lawmakers, the Administration, and the Department of Defense take these concerns seriously.

In the end, resistance to change often proved frustratingly obstinate as legislation worked its way through Congress, but public opposition to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell did not amount to much, even within military circles. There have been no mass resignations among officers. There have been no real protests. The current conservative political narrative never mentions this issue. Progressives won a significant victory on the road to equality, but the nation also won a more just and inclusive military.

Methodology

Executing a survey among military personnel is inherently difficult. There are currently about 1.4 million activity duty military personnel in the country dispersed all over the world. As a private polling firm, we did not have access to lists of active duty military. Attempting a random survey of citizens and screening for military would have been prohibitively expensive. Therefore, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner relied on internet panels to survey these individuals. 

There are difficulties with this population that are unavoidable regardless of methodology. Many are deployed overseas and unreachable. Low-ranking enlisted personnel do not have regular or private access to phones or the Internet that would give us the opportunity to survey them. However, our core measure of support for changing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell mirrored results from other polling data, most notably last year’s polling from the Military Times, which gives us confidence in the veracity of our research.