Ed. Note: It happens every election season. There’s a flurry of flyers, phone calls, and people at your door telling you how to vote, arguing why their candidate or position is the best choice. But are some campaign tactics more effective than others? Voter turnout in Long Beach’s last election in November was an abysmal 22.1 percent. VoiceWaves spoke to local campaign managers here to zero in on what is and isn’t working in getting voters to the polls.
Across the board, campaign managers say that nothing beats door-to-door contact with voters. But it’s impossible to knock on every home in the city, so the chances are, voters will only get a knock if their home is located in a strategically targeted area.
“To be strategic about it, we reached out to people who have a record of voting,” said James Suazo, campaign manager for last year’s Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees candidate Stella Ursua. “There was a limited group of canvassers … It’s purely a numbers game. Everyone has limited resources.”
Suazo managed a team of 20 canvassers to engage precincts where high numbers of voters turn out consistently.
Unfortunately, reaching out to these areas means focusing on higher income groups, which tend to be white in Long Beach, and less on people of color, Suazo said.
According to the County of Los Angeles Registrar, whites made up 59 percent of registered voters in the city in 2012 and Latinos and African-Americans made up just 22 percent and 11 percent, respectively. This is in comparison to the city’s demographics, in which whites made up 46.1 percent of the population in Long Beach, Latinos made up 40.8 percent, African-Americans made up 13.5 percent, and Asians made up 12.9 percent.
Based on the numbers, door-knocking did produce results. Using numbers released by the Registrar after the election, along with tallying voter turnout available on Election Day, Suazo found that areas that were heavily canvassed recorded more support for Ursua.
“There was a correlation between precincts we had more focus in with Ursua having a higher percentage than her opponent,” Suazo said.
‘Know the community’
Jared Rivera, a co-lead for Prophet Walker’s 64th district assembly campaign in November, focused his efforts on many low-income voters and voters of color across south Los Angeles, people more likely to vote for Walker.
Rivera’s team spoke to immigrant voters and had a large number of Spanish-speaking volunteers and canvassers from the area they canvassed in. They were “people who feel comfortable with the neighborhood, who know the community,” Rivera said. “That makes a big difference.”
Recent studies back that up, including one from the Analyst Institute and Yale by political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber.
“There’s a lot of research on the subject,” Rivera said. “Learning of those things … we use those practices together in all campaigns that we do.”
The ‘rule of three’
Jeannine Pearce successfully directed a local campaign in support of Proposition 47, which reduced non-serious property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Her campaign strategy focused on getting personal with voters.
Relying on mailers and flyers does not make for a successful campaign, Pearce said. “It’s finding out how they’re impacted” by the policy. “The person you’re talking to may not have been incarcerated before, but they might have a family member … it’s asking them those questions.”
In 2010, Pearce helped launch Long Beach Rising, which looks to increase voter turnout among people of color. Pearce noticed past efforts at community engagement failed when campaigners did not sustain the dialogue.
To overcome this, Pearce said the rule of three became key: “First, we contact the voter. We might use a pledge to support an issue. Then when we return to the voter we remind them, ‘You signed this pledge’,” Pearce explained. The canvasser will then confirm with the voter a third time to vote.
Pearce said the proof of the approaches’ effectiveness lies in the diversity of the current city council. “Now we have candidates (that are diverse) and elected officials that support the issues we’re advocating for,” she said. “That demonstrates the people were talking to are voting in local elections.”
In addition to the high-touch approach, campaigns have also begun taking advantage of the tech tools now available to them, including statewide databases filled with voter information.
“Every second you can save on technology is another second you can use talking to voters,” Rivera said.
At the door, campaigners can now also input voters’ responses via their smartphones or iPads.
Suazo’s campaign made sure to establish a robust online presence featuring graphics highlighting his candidate’s stance on local issues. They also utilized the Vote Long Beach App, which allowed canvassers to help voters figure out where and when to cast their ballots.
“Technology really helps further that field game,” Suazo notes.
‘It’s up to us’
“In the midst of a campaign, our job is not to register more voters,” explained Suzao. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way. The time spent on registering new voters would have been better spent on securing more votes for Ursua, he said.
Then there’s the low turnout.
“We’ve had this midterm problem,” noted Rivera. “The communities that would support our issues, young people and people of color, they show up for presidential campaigns, but they’re not showing up for midterm elections and that was true all across the country … We haven’t figured that out and that continues to be a big problem.”
Neither Suazo’s or Rivera’s team were successful on Election Day.
As a final lesson, Suazo said many in the community still don’t understand how local politics works.
“People say it’s too complicated,” Suazo said. “We can do a better job of making the information more digestible, easier to understand … I think a lot of the leaders working in civic engagement can do a better job. It’s up to us.”