Photo by Jeff Yarbrough

CLIPBOARD IN HAND, Ernesto Dominguez, 21, rings the doorbell of a modest home in a Portland suburb. A 77-year-old woman in sweatpants appears and Dominguez politely asks, "Do you think committed same-sex couples should get the full rights of marriage?" The woman launches into a supportive rant. "This is supposed to be a free country and it's getting to where [the government] dictates everything!" she says. "I say let 'em do whatever they want!"

During the past eight weeks, same-sex marriage advocates like Dominguez have knocked on 17,000 doors around the state. Unlike most political campaigns, the volunteers and handful of paid workers turned out by Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) and youth voting group the Oregon Bus Project are not aiming to get money or convince voters to support a specific ballot measure. Instead, as their Marriage Matters campaign aims to put same-sex marriage on the ballot as soon as 2012, the groups are trying to spark conversation with a random sample of voters. The first weeks of a three-year campaign in Oregon are gauging opinion on same-sex marriage while trying to win hearts and minds.

In 2004, 57 percent of Oregonians voted in favor of Measure 36, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. BRO challenged the ban in court, but unlike in Iowa, the state courts came down against the LGBT cause. To overturn the constitutional amendment and legalize same-sex marriage, BRO has to get its own statewide measure on the ballot.

That, says BRO Organizing Director Thomas Wheatley, means a massive campaign with years of groundwork. While BRO spent $56,000 lobbying state legislators in the first three months of this year, now they're focusing on regular Oregonians.

"We don't want to get the issue on the ballot until we're sure we have statewide support," says Wheatley. "Our goal is to move the needle of support. Once the ballot campaign starts and there's people on TV shouting about it, the real conversations get lost."

Oregonians' opinions still seem evenly split on same-sex marriage. Of the 14 people Dominguez talked with during his suburban door-knocking last week, five were supporters of gay marriage, three were undecided, three were against and three people refused to discuss the issue.

In response to hard-line answers from voters at the door—such as, "God says no," an actual response cited in a recent training—the Marriage Matters organizers coach canvassers to be open-minded and polite.

"You can say, 'It sounds like your faith is very important to you,'" a trainer named Aubrey told a circle of nine volunteers before they hit doors in North Portland on the night of Wednesday, August 14. "Telling someone they're wrong or calling them a bigot just won't work."

These are similar tactics to those of California's major same-sex marriage advocacy group, Equality California. In the past 100 days, Equality California volunteers have knocked on 500,000 doors, says executive director Geoff Kors. Like BRO canvassers, Equality California volunteers are telling sympathetic stories of committed same-sex couples and trying to start actual conversations.

"People don't view this as a political issue, they view it as a cultural issue," says Kors. "It takes more than one conversation."

While BRO is aiming to get same-sex marriage on Oregon's ballot as soon as 2012, Equality California names that year as a definite goal. Not only do more young voters turn out for presidential elections but, says Kors, that gives LGBT advocacy groups years to raise the millions of dollars they will need to run a successful campaign.

Snacking on flavored water and pork rinds, Dominguez, who is queer, finishes his door-knocking at sunset. The hostility of some voters—three slammed the door in his face without answering the question—does not seem to have shaken him at all.

"I want us to get there when I know we can win. And because I want us to get there faster, I'm doing my part," he says. "I want my kids to be able to grow up saying, 'My parents are married.'"