Cracking the Code of the Elusive Infrequent Latino Voter

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Latino Victory Project's 'CuentaConmigo' text campaign.
Latino Victory Project's 'CuentaConmigo' text campaign. Credit: Latino Victory Project

When Hillary Clinton's campaign compared her to "your abuela" ("your grandmother") last year, it became clear just how tricky communicating with Latino and Hispanic voters can be. The "7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela" post on the Democratic presidential candidate's site was perceived by some as "hispandering," or pandering to Hispanics. Some said it offended them by suggesting that a well-heeled white woman had something in common with their Latino grandmothers who grew up in poverty, did manual labor or lived far away from loved ones in other countries.

But it turns out the Clinton camp is not alone. Even organizations dedicated to reaching Latino and Hispanic voters are still trying to crack the code when it comes to understanding and connecting with them. Data gathering, analytics and research is helping.

"Latino organizations for a while were trying to play catchup to a lot of data and analytics," said Pili Tobar, advocacy and communications director at Latino Victory Project, a group that has partnered with Center for Community Change Action, Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and other groups this election season in its mission to elect Latino candidates and create a culture of investment in campaigns among Latino voters. "We're trying to figure out how to reach young Latino voters; they've been such a big enigma it has forced us to be more data-focused and driven."

While the terms Latino and Hispanic are often used interchangeably, Latino typically refers to people from Latin America including Brazil, while Hispanic usually refers to people of Spanish-speaking origin, which includes people from Spain but not Brazil, where Portuguese is the common language.

Voter pledges and data gathering

In some cases, understanding segments of the voting population, some who may never have voted before or rarely vote, starts with data collection. Like Rock the Vote and other groups hoping to engage young people in the political process, Latino Victory Project used music to inspire interest. This year, the group paired up with Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning Mexican pop rock band ManĂ¡, whose members have been vocal critics of Donald Trump, in the hopes of convincing fans to pledge to vote. The draw? VIP tickets to see the band play in Latino-heavy states Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Florida, and a chance to meet them.

Latino Victory Project ran ads on TV, in radio and in digital and social media for its "CuentaConmigo" campaign, which translates to "Count on me." Ads asked voters to text to enter the contest. When they did, they received text messages back stating something like, "Thanks for pledging #CuentaConmigo to say you'll participate in this election. Have you registered to vote?"

The contest website and the text efforts have been intended to generate information about potential voters, and start text conversations with them, help them register to vote, or promote events. In conjunction with Bully Pulpit Interactive, the digital agency also handling Hillary Clinton's digital efforts, Latino Victory Project is using a text platform called Hustle, which enables one-on-one conversations between local organizing staff or volunteers and potential voters.

The text conversation management system syncs in real time with NGP VAN, a voter data platform used by the majority of Democratic campaigns and countless advocacy groups on the left, so information in a central database can be updated regularly, for instance noting when someone has RSVP'd to a rally. If a voter replies to an organizer in Spanish, that person can be tagged as a Spanish speaker in the system, information that can be sent to a central data hub, said Hustle CEO Roddy Lindsay.

Contact information gathered through the CuentaConmigo campaign has been uploaded to a constituent/customer relationship management database, and in the last days before the election, the data can be used to get voters to the polls. "We're trying to get these pledges, but also by getting these people's information, we can go back afterwards and target them in different ways," said Ms. Tobar in October.

Finding ways to attract infrequent or even never-before Latino voters has been a goal for other groups on the left without a Latino-specific focus. NextGen Climate has been stationed on campus at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno, as well as college campuses in battleground states where it promised to spend $25 million to reach millennial voters this year. The big race in Nevada is between Catherine Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general of Mexican heritage, and Republican U.S. Representative Joe Heck, both vying to take over the Senate seat long-held by retiring Democratic firebrand Harry Reid.

Earlier this year Project New America -- a strategic consultancy that disseminates data and research to progressive organizations including Latino Victory Project, CCC Action, NextGen Climate and Service Employees International Union -- was involved in a study of young Latinos in Las Vegas. One thing the firm discovered through the research: many Latinos who showed a low-propensity to vote didn't know much about what U.S. senators do.

A NextGen ad educating people about the role of senators was a direct result of the research. Aimed at young voters in Nevada including Latinos, the digital video ad reminded viewers that "While the focus is on the White House, the Senate is equally if not more important." The "educational" ad went on to note that senators have the power to block legislation, confirm or deny judges, and hold office for six years, then promoted Cortez-Masto as the candidate who supports a transition to clean energy and closing tax loopholes for millionaires while Joe Heck does not.

Organizations on the left have been working to understand and appeal to lower turnout, highly progressive potential voters for a long time, said David Winkler, director of research at Project New America. There have been more strategies and efforts to find and test ideas for solving that conundrum this year more than ever, he said.

Conversation starters

Around October 2015, Anat Shenker-Osorio, principal at ASO Communication began conducting research for Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy progressive donors. The Latino engagement research involved phone surveys, focus groups, online dial testing and other techniques to help determine what messages resonate with infrequent Latino voters, and how best to express them. Ultimately, the research was spread to like-minded groups, the goal being to determine what sorts of slogans might work well on a lawn sign, or how best for door-to-door canvassers to talk to Latinos.

One key question Ms. Shenker-Osorio had going in was whether it made more sense to talk about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton than to engage people on particular issues. In her research, she determined that leading a conversation by discussing negative statements made by Mr. Trump about Mexicans and other immigrants might only reaffirm disillusionment among voters who already feel disenfranchised.

Emphasizing frustrations with a candidate "causes [potential voters] to question the validity and utility of doing anything at all," she suggested, noting that the more systematically oppressed a group is the more cynical they are about their access to the levers of power. "What we're really battling here is cynicism, and when your opponent is cynicism, it's not just Trump," she said, adding that even though attacking Trump may have led to increases in voter registration among potential Democratic supporters, "Upticks in voter registration are not voting, and they are not completing the ballot."

What works? The research showed that launching a discussion with issues is best. CCC Action used the research to inform its approach to canvassing; issues such as gun safety and obtaining sufficient fulltime work hours -- rather than just increasing minimum wage -- led the way.

This type of research, and the fact that it is shared among like-minded organizations -- in this case with CCC Action, Latino Victory Project and others -- shows progress, said Ms. Shenker-Osorio, who stressed the importance of research and data for field organizing and canvassing rather than just for advertising.

The Latino engagement project research directly influenced CCC Action to change its canvassing scripts in Florida, said Jeff Parcher, director of communications at CCC Action. Early on, the group's canvassers led with a candidate-focused question, asking potential voters, "Who are you supporting and why?" When the group altered its approach and asked people what issues they care about, it increased their level of commitment to vote for Ms. Clinton from 50% to around 65%, he said.

"What we think we're seeing and what it feels like is happening is that voter response to advertising -- or anything associated with a candidate or a party -- people have an all-time high level of distrust of that," said Mr. Parcher.

A new trend this election cycle, particularly among groups reaching Latino voters, is "the fact of a ground game and a much, much more targeted ground game," said Ms. Shenker-Osorio. Having Latinos speak to other Latinos, and share personal stories -- sometimes known as "deep canvassing" is another trend, she said.

"We present to the voter the locally trusted messenger," said Mr. Parcher, who said CCC Action has focused its grassroots efforts this election on around 625,000 infrequent, often-young Latino voters in Florida, Nevada and Colorado, among the states with the highest Latino populations. "These are voters who we think might otherwise not have shown up," he said.

According to Pew Research Center data published in October, of competitive states in this year's presidential election where Latinos account for a "significant share of the vote," they have a "significant presence in three: Arizona (22%), Florida (18%) and Nevada (17%)."

CCC Action has more resources and capacity than in the past to employ a data-driven strategy, said Mr. Parcher. The group's canvassers have been uploading data from their conversations in the field into a database helping track and measure responses to different scripts and optimize them for specific neighborhoods. "We are running the most data-focused program that we ever have. In some ways what we are doing is catching up on the experience of Obama '08 and '12."

As groups including CCC Action and NextGen Climate have exhibited throughout this election, immigration is not the only issue that resonates with Latino and Hispanic voters. NextGen, which is specifically concerned with reaching millennials, believes issues related to climate change, racial justice and economic prosperity are important to millennials regardless of their ethnicity. Talking to Latinos "isn't something anymore that has to have a specific tailored focus," said Sky Gallegos, EVP-political strategy at NextGen Climate.

According to data from Resonate, a firm that conducts proprietary studies of web users to determine their stances on political issues and personal beliefs for digital ad targeting purposes, registered Latino voters are 26% more likely to vote for a candidate based on his education platform, and 48% more likely to believe climate change is mainly caused by humans, than the average voter.

The language data barrier

Framing issues in the context of ethnicity or heritage can be problematic, said Ms. Shenker-Osorio, whose research showed that "talking to Latinos as Latinos actually in many contexts can backfire" because when people self-identify as Latino or Hispanic it doesn't necessarily align with a political designation, or civic participation. "What you're calling to mind most likely is family tradition, maybe some loose attachments to ... music, to customs," she said.

Talking to Latinos in their preferred language however, is very important according to several sources on the left and right. "Targeting Latinos with paid advertising can be deceptively simple just because it's easy to make mistakes that all Latinos fit into the same model, said Brian O'Grady, former search marketing manager for Obama's re-election campaign and a principal at Clarify Agency.

Generally speaking, younger Latinos tend to be more English-dominant while older Latinos are more Spanish-dominant. But relying on age as the only cue isn't enough, said Tim Lim, partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. The types of content people view online can help; for instance, if a voter is spotted on a Spanish-language site, the ad creative delivered will often be in that language.

Priorities USA has used geographic indicators to determine the appropriate Spanish dialect to use when targeting get-out-the-vote mobile ads to Latinos. In Florida, ads reaching people in areas with mainly Cuban populations featured a young Cuban American speaking in a Cuban dialect, while those aimed at voters in places with a higher Puerto Rican population featured a non-Cuban Latino woman.

While data firms and organizations might rely on surname as a key to a voter's ethnicity and language preference, there are more sophisticated means of estimating whether a voter speaks Spanish, English, or a mix of both. Political data firms use a variety of data sets to model audiences based on inferred language preferences. For example, Data Trust, the provider of the Republican National Committee's voter file data, uses third-party consumer data and ethnicity data in addition to voter file information associated with voters in states affected by the Voting Rights Act which require people to self-report ethnicity.

"Hispanic voters aren't one monolithic block with the same priorities," said a Data Trust official who asked to remain anonymous. "It's much more effective and resource-efficient, for instance, to target primarily Spanish speaking Cuban-American voters in south Florida who've been modeled as caring strongly about Obama's policies toward Cuba, with a Spanish-language mail piece focusing on that issue, than it is to just target all Hispanic voters in the state of Florida, for some of whom that isn't a priority, and some of whom don't speak Spanish, or prefer their communications to be bilingual or in English."

Republican data firm Deep Root analytics, which helps clients build data models for TV ad targeting, worked with Univision this year to help the Spanish language media powerhouse research how Latinos and Hispanics consumed media. Deep Root discovered that "many Hispanics who are consuming Spanish language TV are using over-the-air broadcast antennas." That means those analog TV viewers are not captured by set-top box television data providers such as Rentrak.

"We invested a lot of money this year in research," said Chiqui Cartagena, senior VP of Univision's political and advocacy group, who said the company also worked with a Democratic data firm on the media consumption research. Univision partners with Media Predict which tracks an online panel including 6,000 Hispanics, asking them about issues including jobs, the economy and healthcare. Univision has shared results of that research regularly to more than 1,200 political operatives in the hopes of convincing them of the importance of communicating with Latinos in Spanish-language media.

"What they wanted was the data, and that's what we gave them," said Ms. Cartagena. "Traditionally these people weren't even included."

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