Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

Culturally Competent Messaging

By Maria Teresa Kumar

Tagged activism

In 2016, 27.3 million Latinos were eligible to vote. And in future elections, the number of eligible Latinos will only increase. Latinos will account for 40 percent of the growth in the eligible electorate in the United States between now and 2030, when the number of eligible Latino voters will reach 40 million. But voter eligibility does not equal voter turnout, and that’s been especially true in the Latino community. Voter turnout growth over the next two decades and beyond will be decided by the investments we make in our nation’s fastest-growing group of American citizens.

In order to nurture the progressive ideals of Latino eligible voters, a major investment must be made to create more robust culturally competent messages disseminated by trusted voices, as well as campaigns seeking their vote. There are organizations that are doing this work already and are both the message designer and the messenger, but vast investments are needed to ensure complete outreach to the community.

The Message
According to a 2016 election eve poll by Latino Decisions, 42 percent of Latinos polled said their reason for voting was “to support and represent the Latino community.” This was six percentage points higher than “to support Democratic candidates” and 31 percentage points higher than “to support Republican candidates.” At Voto Latino, we have found this to be true and have used this knowledge to craft our civic engagement messaging. In 2016, it was culturally competent and strategic messaging that yielded our highest number of voter registrations ever, 177,218, and pushed us to more than half a million since we started in 2004.

Our research also shows that Latinos are not voting for a specific candidate or party, but are instead voting for what is best for their families and the greater Latino community. They may be putting a check next to a name, but it isn’t the name on the ballot that is moving Latinos to the voting booths. It’s the ICE raids in their communities, the Planned Parenthoods closing their doors down the street, and their hopes of making a living wage that moves them to vote. So when thinking about how we engage young Latinos, we need organizations, political parties, and candidates to understand the importance of focusing on issue-based messages that move Latinos to action.

Texas is a prime example, as we left voters on the table in 2016 by not being fully attuned to what they needed and what the massive wall would mean to Texas Latinos living on the border. No robust efforts were made in courting these voters with a message that would resonate with them.

Often the impetus of persuasion messaging is focus groups and message testing surveys, and all too often this message testing doesn’t include Latinos and therefore is not a true representation of our community. This is not surprising considering that it wasn’t until 1980 that “Hispanic” was added as an option on the U.S. Census. A strategic investment in culturally sensitive messaging starts with ensuring the inclusion of diverse voices from the very beginning.

The Messenger
For Latinos, the messenger often matters just as much as the message itself. When it comes to civic engagement, groups that have a deep and extensive understanding of the community itself are among the most trusted voices. Additionally, Latinos are leaning more and more independent, making it harder for messaging from specific parties to penetrate.

According to the Pew Research Center, Latino millennial voters are more likely than older Latinos to believe there is no difference between the two traditional political parties.

It is community organizations, which truly represent the community, that must be the driving force behind culturally competent messaging. It is here that investment is needed most.

Why are community organizations trusted? One answer may lie in the fleeting nature of political campaigns. While the parties post up for a few months and bolt the day after an election, community organizations provide voter engagement year-round.

If we are to build voter efficacy, voter turnout, and general trust in government, voter engagement must be a round-the-clock activity, not just a last-minute push for minimum votes.

If it were left to political parties, most Latinos would likely never be contacted during a campaign, and the truth is that many campaigns remain culturally incompetent. Take the 2016 election for example, where 99 percent of campaign ad spending and 95 percent of campaign visits were focused on 14 battleground states. Seventy-five percent of Latinos lived outside these battleground states, and were effectively ignored by campaigns. Therefore, year-round engagement would ensure continued presence in states like California and Texas, places that often see little campaign activity during presidential elections.

The major political parties live and die on the 50 percent-plus-one strategy, where the desired outcome is not to achieve maximum participation, but instead to register and persuade just enough voters to put them over the top. This flawed strategy may bring out a voter for one election, but fails to build lifelong voters.

Latino voters are not a monolith, but there is major potential for investment when it comes to effective and culturally competent messaging. But relying solely on campaigns or on mass-mobilization organizations that don’t understand the Latino community will continually fall flat. Many Latinos are younger voters who require different engagement methods, and it will be because of them that we close our participation gap. Luckily, our research shows that once you court them, they become faithful voters.

Fully funding organizations that are already both message developers and messengers, and ensuring that progressive campaigns also have the resources they need to hire competent messengers who understand Latinos and what moves them to action will allow us to fully see our community’s electoral power every election, at both the local and national levels

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Maria Teresa Kumar is President and CEO of Voto Latino, a pioneering civic media organization that seeks to transform America by recognizing Latinos’ innate leadership.

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