Pundits, political experts and the national media couldn’t resist assumptions that Mississippi voters would pass “Personhood” without pause. In a state where 78 percent of voters call themselves pro-life, the prevailing wisdom was that Initiative 26, which became known as the “Personhood Amendment,” would easily prevail. Boy, were they wrong.
The initiative stirred instant passion. If passed, it would have amended Mississippi’s constitution to define life as beginning at “the moment of fertilization” and would have marked the greatest restriction of reproductive rights enacted in any state, ever. For pro-life activists, it was a shot at setting a precedent they hoped could reverberate through states all across the country.
For those tasked with defeating the effort, the deck wasn’t exactly stacked in our favor. Every statewide Democratic candidate came out in support of the amendment—just to play it safe. Most other public officials did the same. The groups with the courage to speak out were the Mississippi Doctors and Nurses Associations, the NAACP, the Mississippi chapters of Planned Parenthood, and diverse groups of clergy and coalitions of mothers, husbands and wives.
On a relatively sleepy off-year Election Day, Mississippi voters sent shock waves through Washington, D.C. and shattered the conventional wisdom in rejecting the initiative by an astounding 58 percent to 42 percent margin. More impressively, voting to reject Initiative 26 tracked closely with the support for newly-elected Republican Governor Phil Bryant, indicating the presence of a broad coalition of voters who came together to soundly reject government intrusion into personal health care decisions.
From the start, we knew winning in Mississippi would require directing a nuanced and focused message to the right voters within the state’s largely conservative electorate. Given the demographics, relying solely on the strength of a motivated Democratic base wasn’t an option.
We got the green light to move forward with the campaign 55 days out. On September 14th, Democratic media consultant Sarah Flowers, the political organization 76 Words, and I arrived in Jackson, Miss. to put together a campaign structure, staff, team of consultants and plan. As co-general consultants to the campaign, Sarah would produce the television and radio, while my firm—Wampold Strategies—would produce direct mail. We were also fortunate to hire Jonathan Levy as campaign manager, who’s proving to be one of the best managers in the country.
The campaign plan was modest and was definitely a working document. Our initial plan relied heavily on direct mail to white suburban women, chronic African-American households and Democratic primary voters with a limited TV buy in the Jackson media market. Paid phones would support our message in the mail. A limited field plan would add volunteer phones and very little canvassing.
But as the campaign gained momentum, additional fundraising and other efforts allowed us to significantly increase our TV buy across the state. We were eventually able to make a buy in the costly Memphis market. Television became the primary medium to communicate with women voters, while mail and phones focused African-American support and a wedge universe of white men. Eventually, paid phones would contact all chronic voting households with messages targeted to all of our primary audiences.
The ‘No’ advantage
The starting point on Initiative 26 was the understanding that ballot measures fundamentally differ from candidate races in that we’re asking folks to vote up or down on an initiative rather than choose a representative. Only one side is truly charged with persuading voters to vote in favor of the measure, while the other side is simply convincing voters it’s a bad idea.