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Ayanna Pressley’s Campaign Credits Upset Victory to Minority Outreach

Pollsters in Massachusetts’ 7th District wrongly assumed mostly white people would vote, strategist says

Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley defeated Rep. Michael Capuano in the 3rd District Democratic primary. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley defeated Rep. Michael Capuano in the 3rd District Democratic primary. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Fresh off one of the biggest upsets of the primary season, campaign consultants for Boston’s Ayanna Pressley had a message Friday for other candidates: Don’t overlook minority voters. 

Pressley, a former Boston city councilor, defied the predictions to defeat longtime incumbent Michael Capuano in Massachusetts’ 7th District partly because she ignored early polls saying white voters would dominate turnout at the polls, said Josiane Martinez, a Pressley campaign consultant and the founder and CEO of Archipelago Strategies Group.

Instead, Pressley’s campaign heavily targeted young people and people of color. Her only television advertisements were in Spanish on Telemundo and Univision, Spanish-only networks that cater to Latino audiences. She also ran digital ads in multiple languages and conducted get-out-the-vote campaigns targeting the district’s Spanish, Haitian, Chinese and African American communities and media outlets, Martinez said. 

“Pollsters were saying that although the seventh district is minority-majority, most of the voters are white, but that remains to be seen,” Martinez said. “I really hope campaigns and pollsters change the way they think about campaigns. Communities end up being disenfranchised.”

Pressley, who is African American, tapped into the spirit of an election year in which numerous women and minorities, especially Democrats, have run and won their primaries. She was the second minority female candidate to topple a white male incumbent this primary season, after House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley’s shocking defeat to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York in June. 

Recognizing potential gains, both parties have looked to capitalize on growing minority populations who have historically been overlooked and underrepresented at the polls. 

The Democratic National Committee, looking to capitalize on President Trump’s low popularity among minority communities, in June announced a multi-million strategy to motivate non-white voters for the midterm elections. While the Trump administration and many in the GOP’s focus on immigration has risked alienating minority voters, conservative powerhouses like the Koch Brothers have instead worked to court the demographic through outreach efforts. 

In Pressley’s race, large increases in turnout in the district were one sign the strategy worked, Martinez said. More than 102,000 people showed up at the polls, in spite of the inconvenient primary date on the Tuesday after Labor Day. That’s compared to 61,000 in 2014.  Capuano ran unopposed that year. 

“That tells you the amount of effort that went into increasing that base and building a movement,” she said. 

Political insiders had overwhelmingly expected Capuano to win and wrongly predicted that the white male candidates would prevail in other local races, Martinez wrote in a blog post for Boston’s WGBH radio station.

Preliminary results showed that Pressley did particularly well in precincts with large populations of minorities and young voters. 

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