The Demographic Approach

The demographic approach is used in both non-partisan projects and initiative campaigns, but because the goals of targeting are different, the strategies will be as well.

To get an idea of the vagaries of demographic approaches, consider two examples, both from Bineshi Albert of SAGE Council. The first is from a voter turn-out project undertaken by the Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA), which was started by SAGE Council and is an ongoing program in the organization. The second is from the Stop Tax Waste campaign, a measure finance committee set up by SAGE Council to defeat a street bond initiative that would have funded the construction of a suburban commuter road straight through the site of sacred petroglyphs.

A difference of purpose

In both cases, electoral organizers wanted to reach a specific demographic, but their purposes were quite different. In the first case, SAGE Council wanted to demonstrate the civic power of the Native American population in Albuquerque, as well as educate and build solidarity in the community. In the second case, they wanted their side of the street bond issue to win and they recognized that they could do so by appealing to likely voters with a particular aversion to government over-spending. (On a side note, their strategy involved a brillliant piece of messaging – campaign organizers presented what was for them an issue of the desecration of a sacred place as an economic matter than involved all concerned tax-payers – which we’ll discuss in the TechKit’s messaging section.)

A difference of strategy

The strategy that electoral organizers used to target the two demographic groups was, by necessity, also different. Identifying Native American voters was challenging because the information in the voter file is limited. Organizers began by identifying Native Americans in their membership database and matching that to the voter file. Singleling out Native Americans in the voter file was another matter, as Bineshi explains in the video. Furthermore, Native Americans are spread across the city. In order to make efficient use of the project’s resources, they focused their efforts in the neighborhoods with the greatest density of the community.

The geographic element of the Stop Tax Waste campaign was even more pronounced. Bineshi says that organizers started by picking certain areas of Albuqueque to target, but they were chosen for their demographic charecteristics – so we’re calling this a demographic approach. (By now you’re getting an idea of the overlap between the two approaches.)

How does this apply to your project?

Organizers target certain demographics in non-partisan projects because they want to encourage civic participation among those groups. As such, they are usually working people and people of color who are underrepresented in the political area. Demographic indicators, including race, religion, voting history and income, will help you to find your voters – but you may need to get more creative to find them, especially if they are transient or have never before voted. This is where the community connections and knowledge of your membership will prove invaluable.

In an initiative campaign, the targeted demographic is chosen because organizers believe that their votes will tip the balance in the campaign’s favor. The leaders of the Stop Tax Waste campaign and their allies made the somewhat unusual choice of targeting a group of people who were regular and conservative voters – and then tailored the campaign so that it appealed to them. Most integrated voter engagement work is done with communities of people who don’t regularly vote, in part because organizers believe they have the most to gain from becoming civically active. If, for example, you want to win an initiative that would increase minimum wage, you might target workers who are making close to minimum wage as well as people who are sympathetic to workers’ rights.

Demographic factors such as income, labor affiliation, age and race, culled from an enhanced voter file or census data, may serve as guidelines for finding these voters. Then, for the sake of efficiency, you’ll overlay this information on a map to look for concentrations and work from there.

Click to hear from an organizer

Bineshi Albert discusses the challenges of targeting Native American voers in Albuquerque Bineshi Albert: targeting to turnout the Native American vote

Bineshi Albert on the very different targeting strategy employed by the Stop Tax Waste campaign Bineshi Albert: targeting to win the street bond election