Is There a "Bradley Effect" for Abortion?

Yesterday, Mississippi voters soundly defeated Amendment 26, an anti-abortion ballot initiative that would have altered the state's constitution to define personhood as beginning at fertilization. Going into the election, a survey from Public Policy Polling showed 45 percent of voters in favor, 44 percent opposed, and 11 percent undecided—much closer than the vote turned out to be. A personhood amendment like the one in Mississippi has never been enacted and would have had radical implications, even in a strongly pro-life state like Mississippi. Not only would it have banned all abortions without exception, but popular forms of contraception like the morning after pill, IUDs, and even the pill would have been outlawed as well. In addition, miscarriages could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter. But Mississippians won't have to deal with any of that, because Amendment 26 lost 58 percent to 42 percent.

The discrepancy between what the polls said going in and the results means that fewer people supported personhood than said they did and that the undecided voters turned out to be "no" votes. At the same time that personhood suffered a surprisingly quick defeat, the rest of Mississippi's ballot results largely favored Republicans, who took the governorship 61 percent to 39 percent. They also passed a voter-ID law to keep people without the right identifying documentation from voting, 62 percent to 38 percent. This means that thousands of voters who voted for a Republican governor and ballot measure also voted against personhood.

This raises the question, is there a "Bradley Effect" when it comes to personhood?

The phrase is used by political scientists to describe wide discrepancies between polling data and actual returns. It comes from the 1982 gubernatorial race in California, in which African American candidate Tom Bradley lost despite being ahead in the polls going into the election. The theory is that voters were ashamed to admit that they did not want to vote for a black candidate and thus indicated more support for Bradley when speaking with pollsters than at the polls. After Barack Obama's election, some declared the Bradley Effect dead.

However, it makes sense to see this effect in play when it comes to extreme anti-abortion laws. In a conservative state like Mississippi, anti-abortion voters don't want to admit that they are uncomfortable with an anti-abortion bill—even one as extreme as the personhood amendment. The result: Polls reflected the state's pro-life leanings but not voters' strong misgivings. This isn't the first time personhood has over-polled and underperformed. Personhood was on the ballot twice in Colorado—in 2008 and 2010. In both those votes, it was defeated by 40 points after a much closer vote had been predicted.

Yesterday's vote was a major defeat for the radical anti-abortion movement. As I reported last month, the personhood movement has gained a good amount of steam lately, building up a formidable infrastructure, and has begun to win the support of major evangelical organizations like the Family Research Council. They believed they would succeed in Mississippi, which would then lay the groundwork for several ballot measures in 2012. Mississippi was supposed to be the beginning.

Personhood's defeat signifies a big win for the pro-choice movement. Initiatives like Mississippi's may continue to pop up across the country, but the credibility of the movement is greatly shaken. Since Mississippi doesn't have the pro-choice infrastructure a state like New York or California does, the mainly grassroots, anti-personhood campaign that worked tirelessly to defeat Amendment 26 was a great success.

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