Unusual Messaging and Non-Traditional Coalition Partners Led a Red State to Reject an Abortion Ban...

In 2006, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed into law a near total ban on abortion—one that allowed the procedure only to save the life of a pregnant woman. The 2006 abortion ban did not include exceptions for a woman’s health or for victims of rape or incest. As the sole abortion provider in the state, Planned Parenthood brought together a coalition of organizations and individuals to plan a response. From those discussions, the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families (SDCHF) was formed. In a state where ballot initiatives are part of the political culture, individuals and organizations supporting abortion rights decided to refer the abortion ban to a vote of the people.

In just 10 weeks, SDCHF gathered more than twice the number of signatures needed to refer the abortion ban to the general election ballot, which became known as Referred Law 6 (RL6). Ultimately, we won, and voters overturned RL6 by a 12-percent margin. Anti-abortion activists wasted no time. After failing to pass an abortion ban during the 2007 legislative session, proponents initiated their own law, which became known as Initiated Measure 11 (IM11).

Conventional wisdom was that IM11 would pass by a comfortable margin. It was described by both proponents and members of the press as a more moderate ban on abortion that included exceptions for victims of rape or incest and to preserve the health and life of the woman. Proponents of IM11 described their proposal as a reasonable measure that would only prevent abortion from being used as a form of birth control. Polling validated the belief that an abortion ban with exceptions would be dif%uFB01cult to defeat in South Dakota. In a 2006 poll commissioned by Sioux Falls CBS af%uFB01liate KELO-TV, 58 percent of respondents registered support for an abortion ban with exceptions for rape or incest, while only 30 percent were opposed. SDCHF polled in April 2006, and 55 percent of likely voters said they would support an abortion ban with exceptions, while 43 percent said they would vote against the law. Only 2 percent of respondents were undecided.

Facing double-digit support de%uFB01cits and an electorate with so few undecided voters, we had to move swiftly and aggressively to reframe the debate in a way that would penetrate voters’ personal feelings about the issue of abortion and remind them why they rejected RL6.

We successfully overcame our initial disadvantage and went on to claim victory as South Dakota voters rejected a second abortion ban by a 10-point margin this November. What follows is a list of the major lessons learned during this process.

Focus on the Law’s Consequences
The campaign to defeat IM11 involved two primary messages that were crafted after conducting extensive public opinion research:

1. It is impossible to craft an abortion ban that takes into consideration all circumstances that a woman and her family might face. IM11 did not include an exception for pregnancies diagnosed with a fatal fetal anomaly. The consequence of banning abortion for these circumstances was represented by the story of Chris and Tiffany Campbell. When the Campbells learned that they were expecting twins in 2006, their joy quickly faded after doctors diagnosed twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a condition in which one twin’s heart pumps blood for both fetuses. After examining every possible option, Tiffany Campbell underwent selective reduction to give her healthier twin the best possible chance of survival. IM11 would have banned selective reduction—the procedure the Campbells credit with saving their son Brady’s life.

2. Banning abortion allows for government interference into personal and private medical decisions that are best left to a woman, her family and her doctor. South Dakota voters responded very strongly to the notion that IM11 would allow the government to pre-empt medical decisions best left to the doctor and patient. Under IM11, the government could have forced doctors to turn over their patients’ private medical records to the state. Exception language included in the bill as an attempt to protect the woman’s health was so vague that the South Dakota Section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded: “This ban puts the physician in the unthinkable position of either treating (his or her patient) in a medically appropriate fashion and being prosecuted as a criminal, or not treating appropriately and not only facing claims of negligence but, worse, seeing her suffer.”

Equally informative is an examination of the messages that did not resonate with undecided or persuadable voters in South Dakota. We learned early on in 2006, and con%uFB01rmed in 2008, that messaging around choice, abortion as a constitutional right, or the threat of illegal abortion would motivate our base (about one in three South Dakota voters), but did very little to persuade anyone to change sides.

We would not suggest that other states facing abortion ban campaigns adopt our messages verbatim without conducting the necessary research %uFB01rst. When testing potential campaign messages, it is important to consider traditional as well as nontraditional messaging. Our messaging was effective because we focused on the consequences of the speci%uFB01c law under consideration, rather than wading into the ongoing debate about when and whether having an abortion can or should be permitted.

By avoiding debate over the morality of abortion, our messages resonated in South Dakota. It allowed voters to feel con%uFB02icted about the issue but discredited a speci%uFB01c attempt to ban abortion. It was not uncommon for focus group participants or voters engaged on the phone or at their door by our %uFB01eld organizers to remark that they were personally opposed to abortion but uncomfortable allowing the government to make that decision for anyone else. Persuading those swing voters to oppose IM11 was crucial to our victory.

Exercise Extreme Message Discipline
Defeating an abortion ban in a conservative state required a great deal of message discipline. campaign staff and volunteers included a mix of both South Dakotans motivated to help defeat a dangerous law and pro-choice activists. Despite the diversity of background and opinion, our effort succeeded because everyone involved in the effort bought in to the campaign’s message. The strength of our campaign was directly related to the strength of our coalition. While some pro-choice activists were initially wary of adopting more moderate messaging, our research showed that traditional, aggressive pro-choice messaging would not have resonated with our target audience.

Develop a Broad Coalition
When SDCHF formed in 2006, it began as a collection of usual suspects: local representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota. Everyone involved acknowledged the bene%uFB01 t of broadening the coalition to include organizations and individuals with a variety of opinions, backgrounds and focus who all shared the same goal of defeating the abortion ban. The result was a broad coalition that includes doctors, pastors, legal experts, community leaders, Republicans, Democrats and a variety of local advocacy and activist groups.

There is little doubt that our most credible messenger during the 2008 campaign was the medical community. Our polling found that between 60 percent and 66 percent of respondents considered doctors and medical organizations trustworthy messengers regarding IM11. None of the campaign committees or advocacy organizations involved with the campaign scored higher than 50 percent. To be effective, we had to de-politicize the debate over IM11 and amplify the voices of medical professionals on the issue through
earned media.

In a turn of good fortune, an internal memo drafted by attorneys for the largest hospital system in South Dakota that outlined the many impacts IM11 would have on health care providers was leaked to the press approximately four weeks before the election. Following extensive political outreach efforts, both the South Dakota State Medical Association and the South Dakota Section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists produced of%uFB01cial statements opposing IM11. The strength of these messengers (whether willing or unwilling) came from both the public’s trust in health care professionals and because those organizations are not prone to entering controversial political forays. Their advocacy rose above the traditional back-and-forth, tit-for-tat discourse typical of any political campaign.

Use Grassroots Communications To Fill In The Gaps
South Dakota’s political history includes a strong tradition of retail politics, and a strong %uFB01eld program involving direct voter contact was a crucial part of our victory. Let’s be frank. We could not have overcome our initial de%uFB01cit in public support without an aggressive paid media strategy. However, those communication efforts were bolstered by a direct voter contact program that spanned more than four months and included phone bank and door-to-door efforts in communities across the state. During post-election polling, 40 percent of respondents recalled receiving information about IM11 from television ads, 28 percent recalled receiving a phone call and 14 percent were informed by someone who knocked on their door.

South Dakotans have twice rejected proposed abortion bans because of aggressive campaigns that set aside traditional arguments and conventional wisdom in favor of focused messaging and tactics employed with one goal in mind: to persuade voters to reject proposed legislation. South Dakota voters were well-informed and knew precisely what they were voting on. Even after both campaigns, many voters remain con%uFB02icted on the issue of abortion, but they widely rejected attempts to ban the procedure completely because of the dangerous consequences of such a misguided public policy.

Connie Lewis is the vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. Nathan Peterson is an associate at Hildebrand Tewes Consulting Inc.