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Targeting Latino Voters in Campaign Communications: New Evidence and Insights

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Cross-posted at Latino Decisions, Latino Vote Matters, and Daily Kos

Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the United States at 16.5 percent of the population and are one of the most sought after groups of voters in swing areas across the country. However, surveys reveal that Hispanics, compared to non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans, have a lower share of voting eligible citizens registered to vote. Additionally, fewer Hispanic voters are politically engaged. These dynamics put an acute focus on the political mobilization tactics by political campaigns toward Hispanic voters.

New approaches that seek to explain the cause of low Hispanic turnout and political participation focus on mobilization efforts targeted toward Hispanic voters. Research indicates that campaigns spend less time contacting Hispanic households than they do contacting African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites. According to the 2004 American National Election Studies only 16 percent of Hispanics were contacted by political campaigns in that election cycle as opposed to 26 percent of blacks and 49 percent of whites. Moreover, the dominant language spoken inside Hispanic households is another potential explanation for low political participation among Hispanics. 2009 American Community Survey data shows that 35 million Americans 5 years of age and older spoke Spanish at home and close to half of these people did not speak English “very well”. Only 28 percent of respondents to the 2006 Latino National Survey said they could carry on a conversation “very” or “pretty” well in English.

Spanish language advertising has proven particularly effective to Hispanics who primarily speak Spanish or who struggle to carry out a conversation in English. Alternately, Hispanics who are highly incorporated into the political and social fabric of the United States and whose cultural connection to their native heritage is weaker than recent arrivals of Hispanic families, may be less responsive to appeals in Spanish and more receptive to political messages in English. Minimal research in political science has examined how the language of political communication affects one’s political behavior.

However, two recent studies examine the impact of language in political communication to Hispanic voters. Don Green and I analyzed whether Spanish-language radio can be used to increase Hispanic voter turnout. In our experimental study, we ran nonpartisan 60-second, radio spots in 206 uncompetitive congressional districts close to the November 2006 midterm elections in order to reach voters typically ignored by political campaigns. The message urged voters to vote and provided some basic information about the congressional races, including the names of the candidates. These ads were aired in Spanish on radio stations that reached a wide Spanish-speaking audience during peak drive times.

Since 1980, Spanish language radio has exploded in popularity. Only television is a larger source for news among Hispanics, according to the 2004 Pew Hispanic Media Study. With a wide and consistent audience, Spanish language radio is a ripe venue for political campaigns to mobilize voters. Yet, radio’s impact on the political behavior of Hispanic voters has received scant attention.

The results of our field experiment imply that 100 gross ratings points (GRPs) of radio advertising increases Hispanic turnout by 4.3 percentage points on average. It seems nonpartisan radio ads urging Latinos to vote can effectively raise levels of participation. Given the cost efficiencies of mass media advertising, the cost effectiveness of radio advertising compares favorably to other forms of outreach, including grassroots tactics like door-to-door canvassing, direct mail and volunteer phone calls. But because the language of the appeals was not varied, the question of whether English language appeals effectively mobilize Hispanic voters remained open.

With UCSD’s Marisa Abrajano, I explored this question more directly in a second field experiment conducted in New York City’s 21st City Council District during the February 2009 special election. Special elections tend to be low turnout affairs that draw few competing political messages making such an environment ideal to study the effects of political communication produced by the language in which they are communicated.

The experiment established two randomly selected treatment groups that received postcard mailings shortly before the election. One group received a nonpartisan mailing in Spanish encouraging them to vote. The other mailer was exactly the same but in English, and the rest of the sample was randomly assigned to the control group and did not receive any mailing.

Those in the English language treatment group experienced a 2.2 percent increase in turnout on average compared to the 1.0 percentage point average increase for those in the Spanish language treatment group. Simply put, the study found more evidence that the English language mailer was more effective in mobilizing participants than the Spanish language mailer. This finding is of critical importance to campaigns because it suggests that they ought to reassess strategies that appeal to Hispanics entirely in Spanish. Spanish language appeals may be effective in stimulating electoral participation among Spanish-speaking Hispanics, but they are not necessarily more effective than messages delivered for English-speaking Hispanics.

Taken together, these studies suggest there is much still to learn about communicating with Latino voters during electoral campaigns. Approaches designed to mobilize and persuade Latinos are quite nuanced, and scholars have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of exploring these nuances. Studies conducted to explore these details further represent an opportunity for scholars to inform strategies adopted by practitioners and campaign professionals in unprecedented ways.

Costas Panagopoulos is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy and the Graduate Program in Elections and Campaign Management at Fordham University.  The analysis discussed here is based on the original, and independent research of Dr. Panagopoulos, and not part of  Latino Decisions study.