In 2011, PNA was commissioned to conduct research around the Personhood ballot initiative in Mississippi, which sought to legally define life as beginning at conception, thereby banning abortion and common forms of birth control.
Although the Personhood initiative had failed twice in Colorado, conventional wisdom in early 2011 held that it would pass in the more conservative state of Mississippi.
Indeed, initial polling in April of 2011 showed Personhood winning 66-27.
PNA was contracted to assemble a research and strategy team uniquely equipped to accomplish two tasks: find winning messages around Personhood in Mississippi and use this research to build a broader understanding of national attitudes towards women's health and laws relating to abortion access.
We gathered a team of experts that included Joel Benenson, President Obama's Chief pollster and an expert in post-Katrina Gulf Coast Research; Maria Echaveste, an expert in reproductive health and communities of color; and Michael Matthews, who has worked extensively in Mississippi for former Congressman Mike Espy and former Governor Ray Mabus.
Working with that team, PNA set to work designing a program of research that built off of our previous work in Colorado. What we learned from our Colorado research was that many who are opposed to abortion--even many who believe it is murder--also believe that they shouldn't impose their moral standards onto others nor should the government. We also approached the project with an understanding that the debate over Personhood was not just about access to abortion. It spoke directly to basic access to contraception and broader women's heath issues. With this baseline knowledge in mind, PNA’s research team set out to identify key audiences in Mississippi that were particularly weary of government overreach into these personal decisions.
Our team also went about refining core messaging that leveraged voters’ general concerns about government overreaching and linked that to the view that decisions related to abortion are “personal decisions better left to a woman, her family and her faith.”
Anti-Personhood organizers on the ground in Mississippi quickly went to work implementing these messages in part after PNA hosted an in-state and regional series of trainings.
"When you stop to think about it, 26 is government going way too far," a Mississippi grandmother said in a radio ad paid for by the opposition group Mississippians for Healthy Families.
"26 puts government between a woman and her doctor," says a nurse in a TV ad sponsored by the same group.
The result of that messaging? Mississippi voters ended up rejecting Personhood 57-42. A public poll taken just before the election showed that African American voters (a key audience that PNA research had identified as potential swing voters in early April) were opposed to the measure 59-26. That’s after our April polling showed that African Americans supporting Personhood 55-33.
From the Mississippi experience, PNA has since conducted a national research project further honing the messages that worked so well against Personhood in Mississippi. We’ve also conducted message-training sessions around the country based on our wealth of research around women’s health issues.