The Yes on 26 campaign put all of their eggs in one basket with an expose on Planned Parenthood that fell flat and even backfired with the media for their dismissal of the potential consequences of the amendment as political gimmicks and tricks. After that, the media largely focused on the threats posed by the initiative and the momentum had swung.
By Election Day, there was cautious optimism. We had managed to implement a plan that no one thought would come together so quickly and effectively. We now had a GOTV program that had expanded beyond a few key urban areas and college campuses to become a massive field and phone program. We had television in all but a handful of counties, a fully funded mail program and an absolute domination of earned media.
Still, no one dared make predictions and we braced ourselves for the reality check we believed was coming after the polls closed. We were tracking evenly with the returns for Republican Phil Bryant, who was leading Democrat Johnny Dupree by double digits, but no one dared breathe a word until shortly before 10 p.m. when it was announced that Initiative 26 had failed to pass. Then there was jubilation.
A Perfect Storm?
Was this victory the result of a well-executed campaign plan or was it the result of a perfect storm in a unique set of circumstances, events and an off-year election?
I would say both. There is no denying that the off-year election cycle gave us the opportunity to focus national resources in one campaign and that was an advantage. In 2012, there could be as many as 15 personhood measures on the ballot in states across the country. The campaign also benefited from an election cycle with very few contested elections, demanding voter attention. It also left the local press with little else to talk about and an over-confident opponent who assumed the race would be a lay-up in a conservative Southern state.
However, the fundamentals of winning campaigns—especially ballot measure campaigns—still applied. You play the cards you’re dealt, you execute the plan based upon the collective factors of the state or district, and then you capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves.
The way we framed the race and approached the strategy is a blueprint of sorts for campaigns facing similar challenges in off-year races.
- We took advantage of our position as the “no” campaign to raise doubts, concerns and talk about the threats of the initiative.
- We developed a realistic campaign plan based upon the resources we had available, while allowing for the flexibility to enhance or make corrections to the plan without abandoning the fundamentals.
- We made smart decisions as new resources became available, and we found traction with our messaging.
- We controlled the dialogue with message discipline and spokesperson training to avoid the pitfalls and divisiveness of the issue of choice.
- We found common ground with target audiences to give them enough pause to consider the flaws in the Initiative and the unintended consequences.
- We capitalized on the mistakes of our opponent, and we seized opportunities as they presented themselves—in this case with earned media, outreach and a surplus of volunteers.
In the end, we won this campaign because initiative 26 would have been a bad law with far reaching consequences that outweighed the commitment of Mississippi voters to protecting the unborn and their pro-life position. We effectively communicated these concerns in the proper tone without asking voters to abandon their value sets. In the process, we won over a heavily conservative electorate and dealt an early defeat to anti-abortion activists ahead of a presidential year that’s sure to see plenty of similar ballot initiative battles.
Mervin Wampold, Jr is the principal owner of Wampold Strategies, a direct mail firm for Democratic and Progressive campaigns. Merv is also an attorney, a former assistant Attorney General in Louisiana and an adjunct professor at the Manship School of Journalism at LSU.