Hope, not fear, is key for mobilizing Latino voters, according to IU expert

Many Republican candidates claim America will be violent and lawless under a Joe Biden presidency. Democrats compare President Trump to fascist dictators and claim democracy in the United States may cease to exist if he is elected for a second term.

Fear has long been used by American politicians to mobilize voters to turn out at the polls. But according to Vanessa Cruz Nichols, assistant professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, this approach is not as effective as many believe -- especially when it comes to Latino voters.

A vote here sign in English and Spanish at a polling place.View print quality image
Mobilizing Latino voters should be top of mind for campaigns and political parties, according to IU assistant professor Vanessa Cruz Nichols. Photo by Getty mages

Cruz Nichols' research -- which focuses on Latino politics, political participation and identity politics -- reassesses the hypothesis that threat is the main mobilizer for political participation. In her latest article -- "How to Sound the Alarms: Untangling Racialized Threat in Latinx Mobilization," which was published in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics -- Cruz Nichols and her co-author, Yale University Ph.D. student Ramón Garibaldo Valdéz, argue that fear tactics are overused by political campaigns and should be coupled with messages of hope to be effective.

"There is a right away to sound the alarm about the escalation of issues without triggering despair or disillusion," Cruz Nichols said. "Fear and cynicism can actually be demobilizing, because people feel like the situation is so bad that nothing they could do will be of influence."

While this demobilizing reaction is typical for most people, Cruz Nichols said Latino voters are more often the target of messaging that focuses on fear, such as threats like xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant policy. In another paper published in The Forum, "Threat, Mobilization, and Latino Voter Turnout in the 2018 Election," Cruz Nichols and her colleagues used precinct and individual-level voter data to predict Latino voter turnout in 2018, especially while news of immigrant families being detained and separated at the border was dominating headlines.

The time to court these voters is now, and current messaging could shape how the demographic votes for generations to come.

Vanessa Cruz Nichols

Cruz Nichols and colleagues tested whether simply paying more attention to immigration crises was enough to mobilize Latino voters, or whether campaign outreach needs to be part of that equation. In the weeks leading up to the midterm election in 2018, respondents were asked how they felt after reading a statement explaining that the Department of Homeland Security had failed to reunite hundreds of migrant families separated at the border. The researchers found that respondents associated campaign contact absent of threat with voting, and threat without campaign contact as generally demobilizing. When threats were coupled with mobilizing messages, respondents positively associated it with voting.

"How to Sound the Alarm" provides an analysis of messaging that coupled threat with hope to mobilize Latino Americans and effect real change. The #Not1More Campaign was created to expose, confront and overcome unjust immigration laws and the high number of deportations during the Obama administration. The campaign not only drew attention to the trauma the deportations were causing the community but also shed light on the potential benefits of policy that created a pathway toward citizenship for Latino immigrants. The pressure this campaign put on the Obama administration was a catalyst for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program.

During the current election cycle, with threats like the coronavirus and climate change joining xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments at the forefront of Latino voter issues, Cruz Nichols said candidates could benefit from using this approach to increase mobilization.

"Both the left and right could benefit from not focusing on angry, cynical messaging all of the time," Cruz Nichols said. "In a way, Trump actually used this strategy to get elected with his base. He talked about the threat Mexican and Muslim immigrants posed, often wrongfully criminalizing these communities, and yet promising his base reasons to hope for a brighter future -- one where he would make America great again, build a wall and impose travel bans."

In addition to coupling messages of threat with messages of hope, Cruz Nichols said campaigns should use direct outreach to Latino voters via phone calls and text messaging to remind them that their voice matters. She said this type of outreach is even more effective when done by volunteers who represent the demographic of the target audience. For Latino voter outreach, Cruz Nichols said messaging should be available in English and Spanish, and campaigns should let voters know that there are advocates on the ground who are trying to protect them and improve their situation.

Mobilizing Latino voters should be top of mind for campaigns and political parties, according to Cruz Nichols, because they are the largest growing portion of the electorate and have the highest birth rate.

"This is the population that elected officials will be serving in any and every state," she said. "The time to court these voters is now, and current messaging could shape how the demographic votes for generations to come."