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.
Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip some collective-bargaining rights from unions is the most organized attack on union rights in a generation. Now consider how crucial unions are to the Democratic coalition.
AFSCME spent $87.5 million on the 2010 elections, an amount the Wall Street Journal calculated as about 30 percent of all spending for Democrats by outside groups. The Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association combined to spend another $84 million for Democrats, more than even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent during the midterms.
All three unions represent millions of the public-sector employees who are at risk of losing collective-bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. And all three, along with the rest of Big Labor, are spending big money on lobbying and public relations campaigns to defeat those legislative proposals.
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.
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.