Only a few months ago strategists were urging their candidates in Mississippi to stay clear of the "Personhood" initiative they'd be sharing space with on the ballot. More than a few candidates, believing it was the only safe path, chose to take a public position in support of the measure defining human life as existing at the moment of conception (or cloning, or a twinkle in an eye). Disease, rape, incest not counting as exceptions. Nothing would. Felonies for everyone.
Mississippi has a massively conservative voting base and heavily entrenched conservative politicians and institutions. Polling showed white and black voters overwhelmingly favored the initiative.
In January, I sat in the lobby of a Washington, DC hotel with a group looking for ideas on how to defeat Personhood. My advice, partly, based on my experiences with races in the South, polling data and my personal knowledge as a native Mississippian was to assume its passage, run a singularly grassroots operation and craft a campaign that would look beyond Election Day. Fortunately, I did suggest a flexible campaign with data collection and growth capacity in case the unexpected happened and defeating the measure came into play.
The unexpected happened. Mississippians defeated "Personhood" driving a stake in the heart of a movement that was planning on sweeping, state by state, through the nation.
Why did they lose in arguably the most conservative state in the Union? Why did the anti-Personhood forces win a majority of the vote in Mississippi? Here are six reasons Personhood failed in Mississippi:
6.) The Personhood Initiative language was poorly crafted and made for bad policy. Doctors, for instance, became concerned about the legality of carrying out their oath to save lives. Medical groups organized. This created a foundation for thoughtful people to begin speaking out. Policy generally doesn't win elections but it does create the intellectual depth political passion and message need to prevail.
5.) Clergy stood up and said no. The Episcopal and Methodist Bishops for Mississippi publicly opposed the measure. The Catholic Bishop would not support it instead offering a critical critique. This empowered other ministers to begin speaking out. By the numbers, nothing trumps Southern Baptists in Mississippi, and their leaders remained lividly in support of Personhood. But, Methodists are the second largest denomination in the state, the Episcopal bishop and his family are legendary profiles in courage for Mississippians and the Catholic bishop's pro-life credentials brought attention to his refusal to support the measure. The clergy who spoke out provided a moral framework for the bad policy argument and an even larger moral foundation for voters.
4.) Haley Barbour, the Guv himself, publicly raised concerns about the implications of the measure; right before saying would vote for it. But, he chose to share his concerns. Why? I have no idea. He's an excellent political strategist. Like President Clinton, he's his best strategist. I find it hard to believe he didn't speak out knowing he would have an impact against the measure. He did. Haley "green lighted" many to do what they wanted to do. Vote no.
3.) The Mississippi NAACP announced their opposition to the measure. Derrick Johnson is the president. He is about as courageous and shrewd as they come. He took a stand. And, you know what? The large percentage of black Mississippians supporting Personhood began to crumble. It was leadership in action. And, it changed the outcome. A voting majority began forming of African Americans, white Democrats and upper middle class, educated white conservatives.
2.) "Mississippians for Healthy Families" organized; then they organized the state around defeating personhood. It was this group that brought together the policy concerns, messaging and grassroots organizing that synergized the opposition. Prior to the existence of "Mississippians for Healthy Families" there were only voices in the wilderness throughout the state in search of a movement. This gave them a movement. They connected these voices and brought depth, know-how and resources. Basically, they turned the opposition into a campaign; a winning campaign. Perhaps, "Mississippians for Healthy Families" has a second legacy in creating the largest and most powerful progressive database and organization in Mississippi.
1.) The forces who brought Personhood before the public insulted the intellectual and cultural sensibilities of thousands of Mississippians. They assumed Mississippi would be a cake walk. They provided grandma's 1970's abortion language that didn't speak to many younger, yet conservative, Mississippians. They were sloppy in their organizing and flippant about their opposition; condescending. Their official Personhood website looks like my child's 4th grade class designed it.
I talked to many Mississippians leading up to Election Day; acquaintance after acquaintance, folks I grew up with and know as devout social conservatives. And, to the last one they were voting NO on Personhood. They were turned off by those leading the Personhood campaign. They were insulted by the assumptions of how they thought and that they were supposed to follow the leader without question. They didn't.
There's a lesson here about showing up in Mississippi without your game face on. As the Ford Expedition set grows in the 'burbs with their venti bolds in the cup holders so does the sophistication. Don't bet the farm unless you've invested in the crops. Otherwise, you will lose. Ask the people of Personhood.
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