By Mark Niquette and Arit John
September 16, 2016
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO is mailing pamphlets, making calls, knocking on doors and visiting job sites as it usually does in presidential elections, reaching out to its one million members and retirees to cajole those who are undecided and motivate those inclined to back Hillary Clinton to get out and vote on Nov. 8.
One thing union leaders aren’t aren’t doing is expending a lot of energy trying to win back members drawn to Donald Trump’s populist, anti-trade message.
“It’s not effective,’’ President Rick Bloomingdale said. “He said it himself: ‘I could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue, and I’d still get votes.’ And that’s where those folks are.’’
With Trump wooing working-class voters by promising to renegotiate trade deals and bring back lost manufacturing jobs, some unions are recalibrating their usual election-year outreach to members on behalf of Clinton to account for the billionaire’s appeal. Other outside groups that traditionally back Democrats are trying to overcome a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton, including by promoting the party’s candidates lower on the ballot to draw votes for her.
The stakes are especially high in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states crucial to Trump’s path to winning the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House, where a relatively small change in turnout among union members and other voting groups could be decisive in a close contest.
The approaches show how outside political groups are having to adapt in an election with a historically unpopular Democratic nominee and an unconventional Republican candidate in Trump.
“They can do all the outreach that they want,’’ said John Russo, a labor-studies professor and former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. “There’s not a lot of things that you can say about Trump that’s going to change anybody’s mind.’’
While union membership has been declining since the 1950s, organized labor remains a crucial voting bloc for Democrats in presidential races. Voters in households with a union member accounted for 18 percent of the U.S. electorate in 2012, and 58 percent of those voters choose Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, according to national exit polls.
In Pennsylvania, 21 percent of the 2012 presidential vote was from voters in a union household, with 57 percent backing Obama, exit polls showed. Twenty-two percent of Ohio’s vote came from union homes, with 60 percent backing the Democrat.
Even if Trump appeals to some union men on trade, there are union women, blacks, Latinos and service workers opposing him, said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director at the AFL-CIO who is now serving in that role for the Service Employees International Union.
“When you look at the numbers, when all is said and done, I expect union households to be among the strongest supporters for Secretary Clinton in the country,” Rosenthal said.
Still, Trump has hammered Clinton for her past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which trade unionists blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs, and he is courting working-class voters frustrated by stagnant wages and job insecurity with promises to reopen coal mines and steel mills.
A Bloomberg Politics poll of Ohio released on Wednesday shows that 57 percent of all respondents think Nafta has done more to cause the loss of jobs and companies than to increase exports and employment. Trump, who leads Clinton by 5 percentage points in the poll, is winning 45 percent of voters in union households, compared with 48 percent for her.
Clinton is holding a 6 percentage point lead in Pennsylvania, according to an average of five recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. The two states combined have 38 Electoral College votes.
Union leaders have tried to blunt Trump’s appeal to working-class voters by calling the billionaire a hypocrite. They point out that he makes his clothing and other products overseas and accuse him of shortchanging his workers and vendors.
That hasn’t swayed die-hard Trump supporters such as Donna Calhoun, a retired autoworker from North Jackson, Ohio, near Youngstown. There’s little the billionaire could do to change her support, she said.
“People have got to look at the big picture,” said Calhoun, 65. “This is our last chance to save this country, and he’s the only one who can do it.”
Bloomingdale said a focus of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO this year is on what he estimated to be the 10 percent to 15 percent of his members who may not like Trump but aren’t sold on Clinton. They need to be persuaded to support the former secretary of state, in part by contrasting her record with Trump’s and giving them reasons to back her, he said.
The Ohio AFL-CIO said it is sending a mailer to about 90,000 Ohio voters this week that calls Clinton a “life-long champion for working families” and lists what it said are her credentials and policies for helping working people.
‘Harder This Time’
Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers based in Pittsburgh, said he thinks it’s possible to both motivate loyal Democrats to vote for Clinton and boost her support by educating members about Trump.
“Our work is harder this time,’’ Gerard said. “Here you’ve guy that’s saying, with no proof, ‘Vote for me, I’m going to save you.’ And so there’s lots of people that unless we get to tell them the truth about this guy, he’s going to hoodwink them.”
Even so, rank-in-file union members are not in lock-step with their leadership and the Democratic Party, Russo said. Clinton could lose the working class still angry about free trade and the impacts of globalization, especially if infrequent voters who cast ballots in the primary for Trump turn out in the general election, he said.
Other groups that back Democrats are also dealing with Trump’s unusual appeal and what polls suggest is a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among more liberal voters and those under age 35 after her combative primary fight with Bernie Sanders.
To mobilize millennial women, EMILY’s List, a group that traditionally backs female Democratic candidates, has launched a $20 million digital media campaign in partnership with Priorities USA, a super-political action committee backing Clinton.
The digital campaign, which includes sponsored content and advertising on websites, YouTube videos and social media, is running in battleground states of New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and Iowa, spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said.
Voto Latino, a non-partisan group that registers Latino voters, has launched a super-PAC for the first time since its inception in 2004 aimed primarily at defeating Trump and his anti-immigration agenda. The effort, in partnership with Priorities USA, will start with a $2 million ad buy in Florida, according to a person familiar with the plans. Priorities USA is also running the campaign, "What We Stand For," in Nevada and Colorado.
While Clinton holds a comfortable lead in polls of Hispanic voters, a national survey conducted Aug. 19-30 by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions found that 51 percent said their motivation for voting this year is to stop Trump, with only 23 percent saying to support Clinton.
Democracy for America, which is now backing Clinton after endorsing Sanders in the primary, is promoting other Democratic candidates on the ballot to help “trickle up’’ votes to Clinton, spokesman Neil Sroka said. The organization began a $200,000 campaign last week in North Carolina to help Deborah Ross, a Democrat challenging Republican Senator Richard Burr.
The strategy allows the organization to mobilize its members without having to persuade those who are aren’t sold on Clinton or may be considering an alternative such as Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Sroka said.
“If you’re going to take action to work in a local campaign office for a Senate candidate, you’re definitely going to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump,’’ he said.
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