Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino talks about the 2012 election, social media and why both parties are failing Hispanics.
Maria Teresa Kumar is the founding executive director of Voto Latino, a non-partisan group created in 2004 with the mission to find, register, and turn out young Latino voters in the United States. With Latino Americans poised to make up a considerable slice of the swing-state electorate this year, plenty of operatives on both the right and left are eagerly watching to see which they'll fall. But Kumar and Voto Latino are after something longer term. With Kumar in Austin to talk at SXSW about social media's ability to shape a political contest, we talked by phone about online experimentation's lessons for converting trending topics into action, how President Obama made this election personal, and what it will take to convince Democrats and Republicans to pay attention to Latinos after Election Day. This interview has been condensed and edited.
In 2006, you focused on using text messages to reach out to Latino potential voters. What does that outreach look like in 2012?
Since 2004, we've seen an evolution in technology. Up to this point it has always been about what's next on the horizon that's going to be the game changer. Now we have a toolbox. Not only do we have text messaging, we have Facebook. On Facebook alone you have have 11 million U.S. Hispanics. And then you also have Twitter. In the 2008 election, Twitter was just getting started. All of the sudden you have all these different tools. What we're trying to do is to figure out how you mix them into a seamless experience. What I mean by that is, for example, not only are we creating a Voto Latino app, with that same tool you're going to be able to fill out a voter registration form so that you never have to leave your Facebook network. The way we're using Twitter is that we have roughly 30 celebrities where among their social networks they account for roughly 38 million fans.
So we're going to be working with information where it's not just, 'Here are the voter registration dates,' but it's about creating awareness by having [Voto Latino co-founder] Rosario Dawson speak, for example, for the environment, and Wilmer Valderrama speak on education, and Jessica Alba speak on healthy families. We're using our celebrities to carry those voices to their audiences.
Does it work? Do people really say, 'Rosario Dawson is tweeting about something political, and not only am I going to read it, I'm going to pass it along to my network'?
We experimented with this in 2010 with the Census. Trying to make the Census sexy is almost impossible, right? We partnered with Demi Lovato. She's a Disney kid and now has several best-selling albums. What we did with her is that we experimented with how social media translates into mobilization. And we challenged her to make our hashtag on Twitter trend. Not only did she make it trend, she made it trend worldwide within 20 minutes. We saw an uptake where people were taking the hashtag and tweeting and also going back to our site to learn more about the Census. We had one young woman from the Central Valley who found us because of a tweet from Demi Lovato, and she took that information, contacted our office, and got her whole 200-person congregation at her church to pledge to fill out the Census.
So these are incredibly powerful tools that no one has completed exploited. It's going to be an opportunity to say, 'Okay, now we have all these different mediums, what can be the most effective for these different audiences?' I can tell you that for Voto Latino, Facebook is great for an audience from their mid-twenties and higher, whereas Twitter is great for someone between 18 and mid-20s.
As perfectly sensible as it might be to focus on voter registration, we seem to have the same conversation every two or four years. There's work done to engage a group of voters and pull them into the process, and then in the next election cycle it becomes about doing it over again. How much of this work is about the binariness of registration and how much of it is about creating a relationship with a voter that's sustainable?
Long-term engagement, right. This is based on the findings from the experimenting we did in 2010 with the Census. What we found is that the difference with this demographic -- first of all, we target acculturated American Latinos, meaning that they are English-dominant -- is that 80 percent of all Latino voters are English-dominant, but that doesn't mean that there's a news source that's actually targeting them. So that's why we work very closely with celebrities and with media. We have roughly 87 radio DJs who are part of our coalition in our top 25 markets. We use them as messengers to get folks to not only learn about the election but come back to us.
We're right now creating a site called Election Center: News You Can Use. Our hope is to make it really robust so that not only, say, Rosario starts tweeting about the environment post-election but that her followers look at it and then come for more information about it on our site. And then they get active. Not only did they just read that Congress is about to vote on fracking but now they can go ahead and sign a petition for or against fracking, depending on how they feel, that will then immediately go to their member of Congress. What happens now is that people woo individuals every four years and then they feel like, 'You invited me to the party, but you didn't call me the next day.'
But if you were to ask me what the obstacles are going to be to voting this year, it's not necessarily going to be being registered to vote. It's going to be that a lot of voter ID laws have changed from 2008. So with the Election Center we're going to also give you all the information you need to go to the polls.
When you say that a Latino celebrity is going to be tweeting about fracking, that's not necessarily what people think of as a Latino-focused issue. And if you read anything about Latino voters it's about how there are a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds with a lot of different interests. How do you take the broad-brush approach of registration and apply it to the rest of the process?
The media's reaction is always that Latinos' number one issue is immigration. And it's not immigration. It's the tone in which people talk about immigration. All of the sudden, you can be a third or fourth-generation Mexican American from Colorado and not really realize you're Mexican until someone pulls you over and asks you for your papers. That's a catalyst for political awakening. I use that as an example because in the 2010 election [in Nevada], Sharron Angle, who was running against Senator Reid, basically said that her path to victory was to vilify Latinos. A hundred percent of the media she posted was racially tinged. And that mobilized nine out of ten Latinos to vote against her. But they still voted for a Republican candidate for governor. Yes, they paid attention because of [Angle's] tone, but when it came to other candidates they voted on the issues.