Turnout rates among Hispanic voters in Texas have historically lagged behind those in other states. But as demographics in the Lone Star state continue to shift, the key for Democrats to win local elections and ultimately turn the state blue in statewide and national elections is increasing that turnout. That’s where a recent voter turnout project our firms conducted in Harris County, Texas comes in.

In the fall of 2012, Texans for America’s Future PAC conducted a comprehensive, research-driven, field and paid communications program aimed at increasing general election turnout among low-propensity African American, Latino and progressive Anglo women voters in Harris County. Gold Communications and Myers Research were engaged to conduct direct mail and polling to targeted Hispanic voters as part of the program.

The project resulted in a historically high 58 percent turnout rate among 140,000 targeted low-propensity Hispanic voters in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston.

The starting point for our effort was a discovery by Myers Research that even though they were calling registered voters at specific addresses with specific voting histories, over 30 percent of targeted voters indicated they were not registered to vote, despite the fact that they were. Anecdotal reports reinforced this point, as the field effort identified registered voters who had not voted in 2010 and did not realize they were still registered. This became the basis of our mail program.

A mail program not based on social pressure

Gold Communications designed a five-piece turnout mail program that was driven by this main research finding, rather than following the latest trend of exerting “social pressure” by making voting turnout public knowledge.

The growing use of social pressure messaging in mailings to get out the vote has been propelled by social science research studies that have found an increase in the turnout of infrequent voters when they are sent mailings that include such messaging when contrasted with mailings that appeal to civic duty.

The mailings tested in these studies have included pieces detailing the target’s voting history, comparing that history to that of the recipient’s neighbors and promising to report after the election whether the individual had voted (which some have described as “public shaming”). In some instances, a softer approach has been employed, where the voter is thanked for participating, though it has met with somewhat less success.

We chose to forgo such social pressure messaging and instead conduct a program aimed at empowering infrequent voters by informing them of their registration status, while seeking to persuade them that voting was critical to their interests.

The initial mailing was thus designed to appear as an official notice of eligibility to vote. The piece included a large arrow and box, into which each individual target’s name and address were lasered, to make it clear to the recipient that they were, in fact, registered and eligible to vote. The piece also began an effort to persuade the voters that their priorities and values were at stake, that Hispanics in Texas were under attack by extremist Republicans and that voting was necessary to defend their community.

There’s some irony here. Even though we rejected the social pressure route, this mailing aimed at informing and motivating rather than shaming voters, was awarded a Pollie for “Best Use of Social Pressure” by the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).

The next three pieces in the program focused on further persuading our target universe that voting was important to them, their families and their community. To this end, we employed the same message principles that have long been used in the pursuit of swing voters: tell an emotional story, make sure the story is relevant to the lives of the recipients and repeat the message again and again.

These pieces used what the polling showed to be the most powerful and relevant issues with our targeted voters: Mitt Romney’s threat to veto the DREAM Act, the need to stand with President Obama and quotes from Harris County Sheriff Garcia saying that voting was essential to protect the community. The final piece in the program returned to emphasizing that the recipients were indeed registered to vote.

Typically, communications plans to swing voters are built upon the understanding that repetition is key to message penetration. Too often, plans for mailings to infrequent base voters ignore this principle. The Harris County Hispanic Turnout Project avoided this pitfall and sought to persuade the targeted voters with repeated, emotional and relevant messages.

The mail was backed up by a program that included door-to-door, phone and broadcast radio. Building on already existing civic engagement activities, the effort met with startling success: Of more than 140,000 low-propensity Hispanic voters in Harris County who were mailed, 58 percent voted. High-propensity Hispanic voters in the county (none of whom were mailed) voted at a nearly identical rate of 58.2 percent.

The turnout rate of the county’s low-propensity voters who were not mailed was only 25.6 percent. In short, low-propensity voters who received mail mirrored the performance of high-propensity voters and more than doubled the turnout of low-propensity voters who did not receive the mail.

What’s more, the 58 percent turnout of low-propensity Hispanic voters in Harris County who received the mail compares to a 48 percent turnout among Hispanic voters nationwide and a 39 percent turnout among Hispanic voters statewide in Texas.

The Harris County election results included a 971-vote victory for President Obama, a comfortable reelection for Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the protection and election of 14 Democratic District Judge candidates, many by razor-thin margins. The narrowest victory margin was 1,694 votes, five races were decided by fewer than 10,000 votes and only one of the 14 victories was by a margin greater than 27,000 votes.

The differential turnout between low-propensity Hispanic voters who were mailed and those who did not receive the mail would translate to an increased turnout of over 46,000 votes. At a minimum, it is likely that the program drove an additional 25,000 to 30,000 votes. The program clearly made the difference in most, if not all of the 14 District Judge victories.

A highly integrated campaign

While some have recently raised questions about the efficacy of mail in driving base Democratic voter turnout, the results of the 2012 Harris County Hispanic Turnout Project provide strong evidence that powerful, emotional and effective mail—combined with the newly discovered need to inform some voters of their eligibility to vote—can motivate voters and increase base turnout.

Indeed, the impact of these mailings (as part of a program that integrated mail, field, phones and radio) appears to far outpace previously reported turnout effects of social pressure messaging, which has only furthered our shared skepticism towards the social science research behind that messaging.

Our skepticism has been partially based on the limitations inherent in the systematic experimentation of a single variable in the inherently multivariate real world of campaigns. In the specific case of social pressure messaging research, we have also been struck by the limitations of the testing to date.

We do not find it surprising that social pressure messaging has outperformed mailings that appeal to civic duty. Given how common appeals to civic duty are at election time, if such messaging were effective, infrequent base voters would not be infrequent voters. Nor should it be surprising that social pressure messaging outperforms typical partisan get-out-the-vote messaging that views the process as a mechanical one of voter identification and mobilization.

Rather, what these results show is the need to test social pressure messaging against mail created to persuade infrequent base voters that voting is vital to them and their families. In addition, the phenomenon of significant numbers of base voters being unaware that they are registered and eligible to vote is an important discovery that we believe warrants further testing.

Dave Gold is President of Gold Communications, a Democratic direct mail firm. Andrew Myers is President and CEO of Myers Research, a Democratic polling firm.