Citizens United Gave Unions More Power, Too. Can the AFL-CIO Get Obama Re-elected?

The new science of winning campaigns.
June 8 2012 12:28 PM

A New Job for Labor

Citizens United didn’t just permit corporations to spend freely on elections; it opened the door to unions, too. Can the AFL-CIO get Obama re-elected?

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Canvassers would knock on doors and ask residents if they wanted to join Working America. Anyone who signed a piece of paper became effectively an AFL member, eligible to be included in the union’s political programs. With operations in a dozen cities, Working America grew to 3 million members. It became the sphere through which the AFL could do traditional union-style organizing—heavy on direct voter contact like phone calls and door-to-door canvasses—in a cleverly expanded universe of sympathetic voters who were not dues-paying members.

With the Citizens United decision in 2010, the AFL could use its methods to speak to anyone—though their opponents could, too. But thanks to initiatives like Working America, the AFL was ahead of the competition. The union already knew a lot about how to talk to its members outside of mass media: Research had repeatedly found that they were more responsive to mail from a local than a national or an umbrella federation. The AFL had also deployed some of the earliest experiment-informed programs to understand which messages and themes most successfully changed members’ minds. In Ohio, a field experiment demonstrated that labor knew how to get its targets to the polls: Those who received at least one contact from the AFL turned out at a rate 18 points higher than those who received none. Three contacts boosted turnout by just under 30 points.

At the same time, the AFL was using Ohio to test a substantive departure from standard political practice. The difference between media and field operations—the so-called “air war” and “ground game”—is typically not one just of venue, but of content and purpose. Since the rise of television and radio advertising, campaigns have largely relied on the air to make their arguments, a setting where they fully control the message and presentation. The ground has been for vote-counting: individual interactions with voters at doors or over phone lines to identify their preferences and then, in the days before the election, to remind and mobilize those who had declared themselves supporters (or otherwise looked like they might be). In these contexts, persuading the undecided was usually a secondary concern.

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In Ohio, the AFL’s political department concluded, Working America would depart from that two-track model. Instead it would deliver its message through face-to-face encounters, developing a basic canvassing script and training staff to make the case against SB5.

Working America identified a pool of Ohio households that the AFL’s statistical models profiled as likely to be friendly to the argument, and then randomly assigned canvassers across it so that there would be a control group that went unvisited for comparison. The AFL polled across the groups before and after to measure the effect those visits had on residents’ opinions. The targets who answered the door were 14.7 percentage points more likely to oppose SB5. The campaign had an equal impact among the general public as it did moving union households and Working America members. Its greatest sway, in fact, was over the most conservative voters.

On election day, SB5 was overwhelmingly rejected by Ohio voters, and AFL officials emerged from the experience confident that they could use face-to-face canvassing to change minds even as millions were being spent by both sides on television ads. They anticipated further experiments in low-profile contests, like the following June’s mayoral race in San Diego, to develop a strategy for competing in the first presidential election after Citizens United. But in January, union organizers in Wisconsin succeeded in another show of force by gathering a staggering number of signatures to force a vote to recall Walker. The AFL’s testing ground would not be a sleepy local vote but an election observers swiftly designated the year’s second-most important.

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The imposition of what Podhorzer labels “the Taft-Hartley handcuffs” happened to coincide with the rise of television advertising, which within decades came to dominate political communication. Organized labor could not turn to the airwaves as reflexively as candidates or parties did, and so it became good at the mechanics of political fieldwork because legal requirements forced it to be disciplined about targeting and contact. Even before the rise of databases and statistical modeling, unions had to master voter lists to pick out their members and know which doors they were allowed to knock on and which numbers to call. Geography eased the physical demands: Union members were often consolidated into urban precincts that could be manageably walked.

Walker’s financial edge over Barrett manifested itself primarily on television. There was plenty of grassroots activity on the right, thriving on enthusiasm for Walker, but it rarely took the form of visiting voters at their homes. The 22 field offices administered in partnership between the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Wisconsin were run almost exclusively as phone banks to identify supporters and then remind them to turn out. Only in a few exceptional cases, in conservative suburbs with a friendly walking density, did the party deploy volunteers to do the same work in person. “With the sheer volume of supporters we have, you can make more phone calls in an hour than you can do in knocking on doors,” says state-party spokesman Ben Sparks.