How An Innovative Field Campaign Turned Out Low-Ef%uFB01cacy Latino Voters...

"After two years of inspiring more than 1.4 million new naturalization applications, registering more than 500,000 new immigrant votes and contacting more than 1 million immigrant Latino and immigrant voters, the We Are America Alliance is proud to see our hard workbegin to pay off. Historical turnout in the 2008 election shows how big an effect these communities can have in re-shaping the electoral map, impacting important issues like immigration, and developing a culture of participation." 

—Holli Holliday, Executive Director, We Are America Alliance

By Mark Kanarick and Ari Appel

In 2008, at least 11 million Latinos went to the polls, a 30 percent jump from the 2004 elections. That staggering increase was rooted in several factors. Certainly, anger about some Republican immigration proposals and anti-immigrant rhetoric, combined with interest generated by the historic Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama candidacies, contributed to increased Latino turnout. But it simply would not have happened absent the unprecedented effort of Latino and immigrant advocacy organizations to boost traditionally low turnout among Latinos. Groups like ACORN, the Center for Community Change, Democracia Ahora and Mi Familia Vota came together in 2007 to form the We Are America Alliance. The Alliance’s goal was to translate the raw emotions stirred by the immigration battles in 2006 into a broader “culture of participation” in the civic arena, both at the voting booth and in the halls of Congress.

The scale of the Alliance’s effort was massive both in voter registration and get-out-the-vote programs in 13 targeted states. Alliance member groups registered 500,000 new Latino and immigrant voters. Then they used bilingual communicators to hold targeted, interactive phone and in-person conversations with more than one million newly registered and infrequent voters. These interactions effectively channeled Latinos’ concerns into the electoral process. The end result: The Alliance helped boost turnout to historic levels.

Keys to Success
Educating and mobilizing the infrequent-voting Hispanic and immigrant target universe was no simple task. Merely building a list of these voters is a challenge, and infrequent-voting minorities are among the hardest voters to reach over the phone or at the door.

“Our organizers were driving very long distances to sparsely populated area,” says Gail Stoltz, general consultant for the We Are America Alliance. “Many of the targeted voters told us that nobody had ever been by to speak to them about these issues before. These voters didn’t have the necessary information to vote, but they were very anxious to learn their polling places and other voter information. They were very enthusiastic about participating in the process. Feedback on the phones was similar—no one had spoken to them before. We knew that they were low-ef%uFB01cacy voters, but no one had gone after them.”

The Alliance was successful because it 1) targeted smartly, 2) employed research-based messages that were relevant to the target voters and focused on the mechanics of voting, 3) built an integrated campaign where phone calls, canvass visits, mail and other contacts worked in tandem, 4) made frequent contacts over an extended period of time, and 5) delivered its messages with trusted bilingual messengers and innovative contact methods (for instance, using GOTV phone calls that incorporated lessons from behavioral psychology to boost turnout).

By engaging low-propensity and newly registered voters in a targeted, systematic and innovative manner, the Alliance gave these voters a reason to participate, taught them how to participate in the process, and stayed in contact to make sure they turned out on Election Day. As the only campaign delivering a nonpartisan, community-based message to these voters, the Alliance made a huge impact.

¿Dónde Estan Los Votantes?
How do you %uFB01nd infrequent-voting or unregistered Latino voters? Data on infrequent voters is never comprehensive. Even after enhancement, many are dif%uFB01cult to identify and even harder to reach. Most campaigns ignore this “deadwood”—voters with no recent vote history, or voters who have likely moved or changed their phone numbers. Instead of removing these voters from their lists, the Alliance decided to focus its resources on them.

Alliance members made a key bet: An intense %uFB01eld program customized to the target community and using the right message could motivate even the least likely of voters to turn out. By focusing resources on phone calls made by bilingual callers, the campaign combed through an extremely large universe in a short period of time and gathered data that would make other kinds of communications more effective. For example, callers would determine whether voters were interested in early voting, allowing the Alliance to focus resources for targeted follow-up contacts to those who were interested or undecided. This way, the Alliance spent resources where the biggest margin of improvement was possible: Latinos who had never voted before or those who voted only rarely.

Sí, Se Puede Votar
Early on, the Alliance understood the bene%uFB01 ts of tying policy issues to the electoral process. Immigration reform, the economy and health care were among the issues the Alliance focused on to mobilize voters. “We had tremendous turnout from voters who increasingly understand the connection between electoral participation and policy issues,” says Roberto Cancel, Central Florida coordinator for Democracia USA. “Through conversations on the phones and at the doors, we heard from many immigrant voters that comprehensive immigration reform was a major motivating factor in going out to vote on Election Day.”

Immigration reform may have been a major motivating factor for many voters, but Hispanic voters were far from a single-issue community. The Alliance used wide-ranging initial research, including focus groups and polling, to craft and target its messages. Matt Barreto, a pollster with extensive experience in the Hispanic community, tested various messages, going beyond the usual immigration policy messages and delving into health-care and other economic issues that tested as highly important to the Hispanic community. The Alliance connected these issues, which it knew the community would overwhelmingly support, to the importance of participation at the voting booth.

But the Alliance’s plan focused attention on voters who needed not just the education on the issues, but the mechanics of voting. The Alliance taught voters essential infomation that is often overlooked, but frequently a major barrier to participation. Instead of assuming voters knew where to go and when to get there, the Alliance educated voters on the process: It taught voters how, where, and when to vote, with information customized by precinct.

The messages to voters—over the phone, at the door and in the mail—were nonpartisan: Latinos and immigrants needed to act on their civic responsibility for the good of their community. Beyond the importance of the issues themselves, the nonpartisan tone of the messages helped the campaign boost turnout. Academic research strongly suggests that nonpartisan GOTV messages are more effective at turning out voters than partisan ones. In the end, good research allowed the campaign to develop a winning message both in substance and in tone, enhancing the Alliance’s ability to make an impact.

Driving the Message
The Alliance’s method for delivering messages to voters played a major role in its success: messengers were all bilingual, and voters received the same message at the door, over the phone and through the mail. The contact program took place over an extended period of time—starting in early 2008 and continuing throughout the year. This program of repetitive contact over an extended timeframe allowed the Alliance to become a trusted messenger with voters on important issues.

The Alliance’s bilingual organizers enacted a model of contact that emphasized community outreach at the local level. Instead of sending in someone likely to be seen as an outsider, the Alliance determined that the increased cost of using solely bilingual organizers familiar with their targeted universe was well worth the higher quality results from each contact. By the time Election Day rolled around, Alliance organizers had spoken to and gained a rapport with targeted voters multiple times, building real relationships in the process.

The coalition’s Action Fund members targeted voters through radio, mail, canvassing and phones with frequent contacts. Voters were targeted to receive localized messages through all media, creating an echo chamber and increasing the likelihood that the message would break through. In Colorado, Alliance partners urged voters to protect equal opportunities for minorities, while in Virginia, messages focused on the destructive effects of rising health care costs.

Alliance member groups started voter registration efforts in early 2008 and continued to register voters until late summer. Then, starting in early fall, voters received a phone call, met an organizer from a coalition partner at the door, and received mail at their home. Subsequent contacts reiterated the importance of participation in the election, and pushed voting early where possible. This extended contact schedule allowed the Alliance to make numerous touches through various mediums, giving voters and coalition organizations the opportunity to interact time and again.

Finally, as Election Day approached, the mobilization phase involved multiple additional rounds of phone calls and canvass visits. The mobilization messages on the phone used tactics gleaned from behavioral psychology principles to reinforce voter intentions. For instance, GOTV messages stressed the likelihood of high turnout on Election Day, which changes voters’ “norm-perceptions” and makes them want to join the crowd by turnout out. Phone calls also urged voters to recruit friends and family members to go to the polls. These interactive calls helped create a viral effect, boosting turnout among both individually targeted voters and their social networks.

A Political Juggernaut Comes of Age
As a result of the Alliance and other efforts, Latino turnout increased by leaps and bounds around the country. The electorate signi%uFB01cantly expanded in Colorado: Thirteen percent of all voters were Latino in 2008, a huge increase over the 8 percent in 2004. The Latino electorate also expanded in other Alliance-targeted states, including New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia. The Alliance’s tactic clearly paid off, as 68 percent of identi%uFB01ed infrequent voters in the Alliance’s targeted universe voted early or on Election Day.

The importance of these states to the Obama and McCain campaigns underscores the huge impact of this new wave of participation, the effects of which will be felt even more going forward. “This newfound clout is only expected to increase in the coming years, as the growth of the Hispanic population outpaces that of the rest of the nation,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Miriam Jordan shortly after Election Day. “In 2016, Hispanics are expected to number about 60 million, up from 45 million today. And though Hispanics voted overwhelmingly Democratic this time around, they are likely to be courted heavily by both parties in the future.”

The Future
The Alliance’s work has only just begun. With the 2008 elections in the rearview mirror, the Latino and immigrant voting bloc has shown that it is a force to be reckoned with. Latino voices were heard loud and with a clear purpose—proving to be a crucial component in re-making the electoral map.

“Despite our success in boosting the increase of the immigrant vote in the 2008 election, our work doesn’t stop here,” says Ben Monterroso, executive director of the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund. “There are still millions of immigrants who are eligible to become citizens and who are still out there not registered and not voting, and we are going to continue our efforts to reach them.”

Where the Alliance goes from here is an important piece of the story, and we won’t have to wait until the 2010 elections to begin to see the results. When the We Are America Alliance started, the goal was not only to increase voting rates, but to tie the electoral process tightly with the substantive policy changes that matter to Latinos. Coalition partners plan to build a “culture of participation,” supported at every level, in improving our communities. There is no doubt that as Barack Obama’s administration moves its agenda over the next year, the Alliance’s coalition partners and the Latino voters with whom it works will have many more opportunities to %uFB02 ex their muscle.

Mark Kanarick is programs director, and Ari Appel is vice president of innovation, at Winning Connections. Winning Connections, a strategic voter contact firm, is a member of the We Are America Alliance consulting team.


—Holli Holliday, Executive Director, We Are America Alliance