Last night I participated in a "progressive issues focus group," designed to test market a pitch from the Latino-oriented voter registration group, Mi Familia Vota. They didn't make the 10 of us who participated sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, so I am going to tell you all about it.
Participants in my group were all white, though one made a point of his "Hispanic" heritage, middle-aged or older, and ostensibly middle-class. I thought about half of us were gay (they wanted a San Francisco sample, after all.) Afterward, we speculated among ourselves that we had been selected from the mailing/email list of People for the American Way, the sponsor of Mi Familia Vota. They attracted us with a cash payment of $100 for 2 hours.
Warm up questions quickly established that we all identified as minimally "anti-Republicans" and mostly rather more progressive than that. Everyone had done something to try to elect Kerry, usually through the independent "Get Out the Vote" efforts. Many knew folks who had gone to other states to work. I guess we qualified as pretty committed "Bush-haters." I will admit that I didn't leap to explain what I do -- things like political research and organizing to elect candidates -- as I didn't want to take up too much space.
Our ideas about why Democrats are not winning were not very original. Some pointed at the vast sums of money in politics, biased media, conservative think tanks, the religious right. One woman had a very sophisticated analysis of how smart people who vote Republican have to tell themselves lies. I was the only one who mentioned declining union membership and white racial anxieties, though folks nodded when I brought this up.
The researcher conducting the groups then showed us a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the increase in Democratic success in California since the big increase in Latino registration in 1995-96. (Here's when I really muzzled myself, since I have done a lot of research on this for various employers.) People were blown away by a Perot-like presentation of some simple graphs that seemed to show that more Latino voters provided a path toward progressive victory. (They do, but the road will be long and hard getting there -- and Democrats better realize they have pay attention to these newly empowered voters if they want to keep them.)
Apparently, Mi Familia Vota! is moving out of its Florida home and wants to develop a national donor base and win a broader progressive profile. Having been properly awed by the potential of the "Hispanic vote" (the leader's language), we were shown a sample brochure (ho-hum, full of foundation-speak gobble-de-gook), a video (pretty good, though a little slow), and some positive newspaper article quotes (well chosen). We were asked if we might consider giving to the project. Eight of ten said "yes"; the "nos" said they gave elsewhere but liked the project.
They also asked us what method of solicitation we would respond best to -- phone, snail mail or email. Phone bombed; email ruled. This is the part I hope they pay attention to; I love Delete.
Having been introduced to Mi Familia Vota! naturally I came home and did some quick internet research on the project. They seem to have done a competent job in Florida in 2004, claiming over 50,000 new Latino registrations and 80 percent turnout among them. Two items about their work really struck me:
- Their registration efforts were targeted on the basis of some pretty deep polling. The data gave them a useful profile of who the unregistered Latinos they were seeking might be: 81 percent preferred speaking Spanish over English; 65 percent made less than $40,000 a year, while 57 percent owned their own homes; 68 percent got their news from Spanish language TV; and 96 percent wanted to raise the minimum wage. Many times I've wanted as good data as this to work with instead of guessing at where to send registration volunteers. That Mi Familia Vota! had it in 2004 means they had smart start-up funding.
- They overcame efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to prevent them from registering new citizens at Miami swearing-in ceremonies. Having organized registration at those ceremonies in 1995-96 for Californians for Justice, I know what a struggle that can be with immigration bureaucrats and we didn't have hostile Republicans running the show.
Not surprisingly, I also have some reservations.
First, they are trying to go national. The polling data that supports their work points to one of the problems they face: the Latinos they seek to register are folks who live deep within their immigrant communities. The target population is likely to be most responsive to people who live in their area and share their world. The director of Mi Familia Vota!, Jorge Mursuli, seems to have strong ties in the Miami community, but will the group's projects in other areas be able to claim the same indigenous credibility? Also, in many areas, it is not as if this group would be the only voter registration project; in particular, Southwest Voter Registration has been working to get Latinos into the electorate for many years, with mixed success. Are progressive non-profits duplicating their efforts again, as too many GOTV outfits did in 2004?
Secondly, Mi Familia Vota! is a non-profit. Non-partisan voter registration and civic education are perfectly legal activities for a 501(c) charitable organization; individuals and foundations can legally support them and get tax benefits. That is, there is money in the non-profit tit. But in politics, eventually the rubber hits the road and the project is winning. Progressives don't actually want to register potential Republican voters, just as Republicans trawling fundamentalist churches aren't looking for Democrats. A lot can be done under a non-profit umbrella, but too many progressives want to stay there, safely out of the furnace of competition. Part of why Democrats have been losing is that we have believed we could win simply by being in favor of good government, without fighting. Republicans have proved it isn't so. Staying in the non-profit realm is a temptation to impotence for progressives. We aren't going to win until we know we have to leave our "safe space," at least some of the time.