Former Puerto Rico Governor Sila M. Calderón expressed concern that the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland United States, 1.7 million of voting age, vote at a much lower rate than on the Island. And as part of the Hispanic community – now the largest minority group in the U.S. – Puerto Ricans have the power to influence issues and affect national, state and local elections.
Although Puerto Ricans on the Island vote at a rate of 86 percent, the voting rate drops to 40 percent in the mainland U.S. Although little, if any, empirical data existed that accurately represented the causes for low voting rates in U.S. Puerto Rican communities, through grassroots outreach, we identified the physical and psychological barriers that deterred Puerto Ricans from voting, including language fluency, discrimination, complexity of the voting process and a disconnect between voting and the resulting impact.
In hopes of engaging the 642,000 Puerto Ricans in 31 targeted communities in 13 states who were eligible to vote but had not registered, Governor Calderón, through the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), launched a non-partisan, national voter registration campaign with the theme, “¡Que Nada Nos Detenga!” (‘Let Nothing Stop Us!’).
Edelman began with a series of due diligence meetings to determine ways to reach the target audience. The firm determined where and how to reach unregistered Puerto Ricans by reviewing voter files and census data. Edelman then conducted quantitative polling and qualitative focus groups to evaluate contributing factors and test campaign messages. Edelman also conducted local and regional media analysis to assess effective informational materials.
The research yielded important findings, including: Puerto Ricans and Hispanics will turn out to vote when effectively empowered and motivated, Puerto Ricans are motivated to register to vote when they believe the Hispanic community will benefit and exit poll data showed that potential voters want information in written form rather than from radio or television; 51 percent of voters preferred to receive information from someone they trust, while 50 percent wanted information from the media.
To reach Puerto Ricans across the nation, the PR team developed an integrated grassroots-driven and media-supported education, registration and mobilization effort including public relations, advertising, earned media and special events. Because of the campaign’s short ramp-up period prior to the 2002 mid-term elections, the first months of the campaign included advertising to establish the brand. However, as the campaign developed, we relied almost exclusively on grassroots initiatives and earned media to highlight our messages and educate the public.
Edelman’s strategic approach included: providing Puerto Ricans with public information, support and assistance to encourage voter participation; building upon existing coalitions of non-profit organizations, business groups, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other organizations that welcome empowerment in the Puerto Rican community; coordinating a series of voter-registration rallies hosted by Puerto Rico’s governor in key cities to generate local and regional news hooks in targeted media markets.
The campaign also enlisted other governors, such as Governors Pataki (R-NY), Rendell (D-PA) and McGreevey (D-NJ), Members of Congress and other local elected officials and community leaders to maximize regional exposure; educated and connected Puerto Rican communities with local, state and federal authorities; developed a bilingual PR campaign adaptable for different demographic and geographic markets; and engaged PRFAA’s 12 regional and satellite offices nationwide to extend its community outreach efforts and to provide media with local or regional campaign contacts.
The campaign integrated top-down and bottom-up strategies in three key areas: earned media generated through special events and ongoing media outreach; influencer outreach to create allies and generate a buzz; and grassroots outreach to educate the community and build support.
Because community leaders and elected officials can influence the credibility and long-term effectiveness of a campaign, the team created local advisory councils of community and business leaders to foster influencer support and generate interest and educated them about the campaign, provided talking points to educate their constituencies and provide quotes to local media and included them in strategic planning discussions.
The effort incorporated local and state elected officials or local community leaders into all voter registration rallies. At a national level, the team arranged salon dinners and meetings for Puerto Rico’s senior government officials to discuss the purpose, implementation and impact of the campaign and distributed push-emails and media clips to key Members of Congress. Once they supported the campaign, they became ambassadors, spokespeople and educators.
Edelman recruited and trained 300 individuals to conduct field outreach to overcome public cynicism and help Puerto Ricans understand the importance of voting. These workers staged local rallies, town hall meetings and issue briefings and participated in local and regional events to conduct one-on-one educational outreach with community members. Further mobilization efforts included direct mail, door-hanger flyers, phone calls from campaign workers and third-party advocates, as well as special events and parades.
Since July 2002, more than 328,000 Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland registered to vote – making this program the nation’s largest non-partisan Hispanic voter-registration effort of 2002, 2003 and 2004 and allowing the campaign to meet its registration goal ahead of schedule, 2002 exit polls revealed a 70 percent increase among first-time Puerto Rican voters as compared with the 2000 elections, while 2003 exit polls showed a 60 percent increase and 2004 exit polls showed a 40 percent increase, more than 55 percent polled in 2002 credited the campaign with motivating them to vote on Election Day.
2002 exit polls revealed that 55 percent of Puerto Rican voters reported they had contact with the campaign through grassroots efforts or media outreach. 2004 exit polls revealed that 53 percent of respondents recalled the campaign; in NY, where the campaign was launched, 76 percent of respondents recalled the campaign, since the campaign launch, 24 Puerto Ricans were newly elected to public office nationwide – a 20 percent increase from 2002.
The launch, rallies and ongoing outreach garnered more than one billion mainstream media impressions, with coverage in/on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, AP, Reuters, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC and NPR, among others. Hispanic media coverage included television, radio and print coverage with stories featured on Univision and Telemundo (Spanish-language networks) and Radio Unica. It also received independent coverage in 13 major target markets including Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, Orlando’s El Nuevo Dia and La Prensa, New York’s Hoy, Philadelphia’s Al Dia and Los Angeles’ La Opinion, among others.