Our message triangle centered on the broad position that Initiative 26 is an example of government going too far. We then decided to focus attention on the health risks for Mississippi families, the economic costs and the notion that Initiative 26 was out of line with Mississippi values.
Among our core emphases: Initiative 26 threatens the lives of women, potentially forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy even if her life was in danger. The proposal was so extreme that it would ban common forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization, making it harder for women and men to plan their families responsibly.
On the values question, we framed it this way: we all want to reduce the number of abortions, but 26 just goes too far. It would force a woman who was raped, or the victim of incest to carry a pregnancy caused by her attacker, forcing her to relive the horror of her attack every day. In addition, 26 is so poorly worded that it puts us all at risk. If you cause a minor accident and a woman has a miscarriage, you could face manslaughter charges. If passed, we argued, 26 would be a bonanza for trial lawyers.
Voter concern over the economy served to amplify our message. We argued that government should focus on getting the economy back on track, not finding ways to meddle in personal health care decisions. Mississippi already spends more than $155 million a year dealing with teen pregnancy. Right now, we simply don’t have the money needed to fix roads, educate young people or keep Mississippians healthy.
The key was that we never asked voters to abandon their morals or value set in making the case to oppose 26. We first hoped to give them pause, move them away from the emotional issue of abortion, and then focus on the unintended consequences of the initiative.
Implementing the Strategy
Our first TV ad featured a testimonial from a rape victim who discussed the torment of having to decide whether to carry her attacker’s child. The testimonial navigated through the moral struggle. It concluded with a powerful line delivered direct to camera: “It’s okay to be pro-life and vote No on Initiative 26.” More than any other statement, it exemplified the permission voters were looking for to oppose the amendment.
Our direct mail strategy focused on two target universes: African-American households and white men. Our general messaging tested well with both, though white men were more responsive to the argument of government going too far.
Post-election research showed that 49 percent of white men voted “no,” proving them to be an effective wedge universe where we not only reduced margins but split the vote of a notably conservative audience.
The phone program was run by Brad Chism of Zata3, a national consultant based out of Jackson who, in addition to paid phones, brought a deep knowledge of Mississippi politics and voter tendencies. Our initial campaign plan budgeted for a solid phone program in concert with our direct mail. Successful fundraising and late money allowed us to add paid phones to supplement our volunteer ID calls.
Calls to our wedge audience of white men were extremely effective, especially after Governor Haley Barbour’s public pronouncement that he had serious concerns over the potential consequences of 26. Barbour offered our effort a lift less than a week before Election Day. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he admitted he had “serious reservations” about the potential consequences of 26. Though he announced the next day that he had in fact voted “yes,” his earlier admission amplified our campaign’s main message.
We quickly took footage from the Barbour interview and aired it in a new ad placed in markets to reach rural Mississippi voters. We also used it in robocalls to rural white voters.
It was clear that our opposition intended to remain focused on anti-abortion messaging and decrying the outside forces of Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Their assumptions proved to be fatal. While they were focused on demonizing others, Mississippians for Healthy Families was busy forming coalitions of doctors, nurses, faith leaders and many other groups who found their activist voices for the first time. These groups offered us the local voices we needed to counter the yes campaign’s claims that we were nothing more than a coalition of out-of-state organizations concerned only with a national agenda.