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This is why the two leading candidates for Guatemala’s presidency came to the U.S. to campaign

Why is television comedian and Guatemalan presidential candidate Jimmy Morales campaigning in the United States, among expats who cannot vote back home? This photo was from a rally on Sunday. (Luis Soto/AP)

In the midst of Guatemala’s political upheaval over a wide-ranging corruption investigation, culminating in the resignation and arrest of President Otto Pérez Molina, you could easily forget there is an election underway, the first round of which concluded Sunday.

And here’s the strange part: The two front-runners likely headed to October’s runoff have campaigned here in the United States, in Los Angeles and D.C., even though expat Guatemalans cannot vote. Why?

Latin American candidates regularly campaign in the U.S.— even when expats cannot or do not vote.

Campaigning in other countries is an odd tactic, especially considering that the 1.5 million Guatemalans living abroad, 87 percent of whom reside in the United States, do not have the right to vote.

Yet it is a widespread practice for politicians from migrant-sending countries, particularly in Latin America. In their last presidential elections, Mexican candidates visited Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Dominican candidates visited New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Haitian candidates visited Miami. A Peruvian candidate visited Paterson, N.J. Candidates from other parts of the world, from Taiwan to Liberia, campaign here, as they do in other countries, too, such as Turkish candidates in Germany. In the D.C. area, which boasts a large population from El Salvador, that nation’s candidates for every position from president to mayor routinely visit to bid for the support of the Salvadoran diaspora.

While some of those countries allow expats to vote, they don’t all; for instance, Guatemala and Haiti do not. And diaspora turnout is low in the others, which have only relatively recently allowed expat voting (Dominican Republic in 2004, Mexico in 2006, El Salvador in 2014). For instance, Salvadorans living abroad could vote for the first time in last year’s presidential election — but just over 2,000 did, out of a diaspora of nearly 3 million. Fewer than 1 percent of potential Mexican voters in the United States successfully voted in the last Mexican election, in part because registering requires traveling back to Mexico, waiting for weeks and coming up with documentation that many migrants do not have.

News media in migrant-sending countries often criticize efforts to extend voting rights abroad, saying that costs per vote are scandalously high; one Mexican paper calculated it at nearly 10,000 pesos per vote. Yet despite the fact that migrants largely either can’t or don’t vote, politicians still get on planes to shake hands and kiss babies in East L.A., Washington Heights and Little Haiti. In Mexico, campaigning or raising money outside the country is illegal, but candidates do it anyway, traveling in other professional capacities or saying things like “I dream of being president” rather than “I’m running for president.”

Migrants might not vote — but they are seen to influence those back home.

Why bother, given the high cost and low apparent payoff? In interviews I’ve done with candidates, party officials and campaign strategists in Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, I’ve found that politicians in migrant-sending countries seek diaspora support not primarily for their votes or even for their money. Instead, it is the influence politicians believe migrants have over family members at home.

As Latin American politicians see it, migrants regularly send money home, called remittances — which buys them respect and clout. One D.C.-based campaign manager for the left party in El Salvador told me, “If we get one Salvadoran in the U.S. to support us, that gives us five votes in El Salvador.” During Mexico’s historic 2000 election, which led to the unseating of the hegemonic PRI party for the first time since its founding, then-candidate Vicente Fox visited Mexican neighborhoods in L.A. and passed out phone cards. He told residents he knew they couldn’t vote but asked them to call their relatives and tell them to vote for him. Fox won, and Mexicans residing abroad who now can vote still vote mostly for his party; its candidate in 2012, Josefina Vázquez Mota, won just 26 percent of the vote in Mexico but 42 percent of the vote in the diaspora.

Even with low turnout, diaspora support can be crucial. The first elections in which Mexicans and Salvadorans abroad could vote were won by razor-thin margins (or election fraud, if you ask the losing candidates). In both elections, diaspora voters overwhelmingly favored the candidate who ultimately won.

Migrants often oppose whatever party was in power when they left.

Diasporas often lean heavily to one side or the other, usually against whichever party was in power at the time they left. Polls indicate Mexican Americans mostly favor Democrats in the United States, but Mexicans in the United States who vote in Mexican elections tend to vote for the conservative party, or PAN. It is largely a vote against the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 70 years and produced seven decades of migrants who blame the party for the conditions under which they left. (Current President Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI won only 16 percent of the diaspora vote, and was the only candidate in the last election who did not campaign here.)

In El Salvador, it is the opposite: Salvadoran migration to the United States swelled during the 1980-1992 civil war and the years after, when the right-wing party ruled. Thus Salvadorans in the United States largely support the left-wing party, often with a degree of militancy not seen for years back home. “They have the luxury of radicalism over there,” one conservative Salvadoran political analyst told me, complaining that Salvadorans who left in the 1980s act as if the civil war is still going on. The leftist FMLN won the 2014 election by just over 6,000 votes; the two areas that voted by the widest margins for the FMLN were the diaspora and the department of San Miguel, one of the top migrant-sending regions of the country.

Despite its disadvantage, El Salvador’s right-wing party ARENA played up its anti-crime platform with appeals to the diaspora. It placed billboards in migrant-sending regions like San Miguel with pictures of Salvadorans standing in front of the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, saying things like “Salvadorans in New York say ‘Our remittances won’t pay for extortions.’” In previous elections, ARENA took out ads threatening that a victory by the left party would cause the U.S. government to suspend Salvadoran migrants’ immigration protections and block remittances to family members.

It is this sense of militancy, often nurtured by migration, that appears to be the crucial payoff for parties campaigning abroad. To test whether Latin American voters actually are affected by having relatives in the United States, I built a series of statistical models from polling data. I found Latin American voters with relatives in the United States were no more or less likely to vote or register to vote. But they were more likely to be active in higher-level political behaviors: volunteering for a campaign, joining a party or political organization, or convincing others to vote for their candidate.

In sum, diaspora campaigning doesn’t necessarily win politicians votes from either migrants or their relatives, who probably already favor one side or the other. But communication between migrants and relatives more likely reinforces existing partisan attitudes within families. Those relatives might be more motivated to go out and win votes among neighbors and friends. And yet even if they don’t, politicians will continue to campaign abroad, because the perception that migrants have such influence persists.

And in politics, perception is everything.

Michael Ahn Paarlberg is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His dissertation is on diaspora influence on politics in Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.