It is an oft-whispered complaint among Republicans in the party’s upper echelons. The once-vaunted 72-hour program is no longer the best in the business. Instead, thanks to the proliferation of early and absentee voting, Democrats have been able to build programs that spend a month turning out voters and banking ballots, rather than simply focusing on a rush during the last three days of a campaign.
The millions of dollars that Republican-friendly outside organizations are pouring into television advertising has a positive impact, but it’s not enough to overcome Democrats’ superior turnout operations. Once the polls open on Election Day, once the persuadable voters have been persuaded, Democrats in swing districts can build a large, sometimes insurmountable, lead.
To build that lead, Democrats depend on a key portion of their coalition: unions. Instead of spending their millions on television advertising, unions frequently focus on turnout operations. That’s why Republican-led initiatives to attack union funding erupting in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and in other states are smart moves for the GOP—and dangerous for Democrats.
“The strategy for Democrats has been public union growth. If we’re able to put any restraint on public union growth, it will put a significant restraint on their political clout,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of UnionRefund.org, a group that works to inhibit unions’ political spending.
“The debate has come to a head. We’re out of money. All these states are running into deficit situations, and this is the perfect time to address these issues.”
Consider how crucial unions are to the Democratic coalition. As Republican-allied groups like American Crossroads and the American Action Network poured millions into television advertising, the single-largest outside actor in the 2010 elections was the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
If unions fail to stop the GOP assault, Republican victories would represent a major chink in the Democratic armor. A loss of some collective-bargaining rights means a speedier decline in membership. In turn, that means fewer dues-paying members to fund political activities in 2012 and beyond.
But Republicans don’t even need to win every legislative battle to sap union resources. The battles themselves can suck up money that might otherwise go to turnout operations for Democratic candidates. The money spent on the public relations battle in Wisconsin alone, on the union side, is likely in the millions of dollars. That similar legislation is cropping up in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere—even though the campaigns will be far less cost-consuming—will only add to the tab.
The manpower is even more important, though, especially that of AFSCME and the National Education Association. The public-employee troops are concentrated, in absolute numbers and by percentage, in 18 states. In California alone, there are 1.4 million government employees represented by unions, according to AFL-CIO numbers. In Illinois, it's more than 400,000; in New York, 1.1 million.
Last fall, Republicans took away governorships in four of these public union-heavy states: Ohio (where 46.2 percent of public employees are represented by unions), Michigan (51.7 percent) , Pennsylvania (53.4 percent) and Wisconsin (49.6 percent). It was an impressive Rust Belt sweep.
But the GOP had been hoping for much more in other such states. They thought they had good chances in California (with 59.6 percent unionized public employees), Minnesota (59.2 percent), Oregon (56.9 percent), Illinois (52.6 percent), Connecticut (66.4 percent), Massachusetts (64.4 percent), New Hampshire (50.3 percent) and Rhode Island (66.6 percent).
Republicans lost them all, though many quite narrowly.