Why'd the Media Expect Personhood to Pass?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 9 2011 9:42 AM

Why'd the Media Expect Personhood to Pass?

Going back over articles about Mississippi's now-failed "personhood" amendment, I notice a pattern. The Christian Science Monitor:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Opponents charge that the change – which both sides say is likely to pass – is a backdoor way to outlaw abortion that could put the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in jeopardy.
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Colorado voters twice considered and rejected personhood amendments, but Mississippi's version is expected to pass.
The amendment is expected to pass, and would presumably outlaw all abortion in the state.
The initiative has been gaining support across many demographics, according to polls suggesting that it will probably pass.

What polls? CNN doesn't say, because there weren't any polls showing personhood "gaining support." There was a final PPP poll that showed the amendment at 45 percent support, which I ranked as pretty good, given that the last big test of personhood in Colorado got only 29 percent of the vote. I posed this question -- why did people expect personhood to pass? -- on Twitter, and got two smart-sounding answers.

Michelle Goldberg writes that "both gubernatorial candidates supported it, so local dems expected it to pass, too." Yes, that definitely put the fear into people. But why? Johnny DuPree, the Democratic candidate, was never going to beat popular Lieutenant Gov. Phil Bryant. When he endorsed personhood, he neutralized it as a partisan-identifying issue in an election that Republicans were going to dominate.

The DuPree endorsement wasn't all about party, though. He was the first black candidate for governor in Mississippi. Social conservatives went after black voters, hard, building on years of agitprop about how abortion should really be considered black genocide. The public face of the personhood campaign was a black, female doctor.

This didn't work at all. Look at the county vote breakdown. Hinds County, which is 69 percent black, registered a 74 percent "no" vote. Haley Barbour's own Yazoo County, 57 percent black, voted 65 percent "no." And so on. It turned out that social conservatives can't just expect black voters to abandon liberalism and vote with them.

So: What did the personhood movement win? Salon's Irin Carmon, who did early, in-person reporting on the fight, said that "they would have won if they'd succeeded in making it all about abortion, but the pill, IVF etc were bridge too far." My colleague Amanda Marcotte is arguing that by forcing any discussion of this, they moved the ball forward on discussions of when life begins. We'll just see, but in the short term, the discussion of "personhood" ended up foundering on the silliness of defining a fertilized egg as a "person."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.