While the 2012 election will measure a lot of things, one of the most important is whether we’ve reached a point in politics where money is the chief determinant of who wins a race, or whether it merely constitutes a big advantage that can still be overcome with effort and planning. From the White House on down, the sudden infusion of huge sums of money into races, facilitated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, is changing the way the two parties approach campaigns. Many Republicans are now enjoying a pronounced advantage while their Democratic opponents struggle to adapt.
This new reality was on vivid display in the failed June 5 election to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the candidates and outside groups spent a record $63.5 million, up from $37.4 million two years earlier. Walker and his allies outspent Democrats seven to one, dealing a setback to the labor groups that had forced the election.
On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO’s political director, Michael Podhorzer, met with reporters to discuss the effects of Citizens United and what lies ahead. “I don’t think people were prepared for quite what happened,” he said. “When we went back and analyzed it, one of the things that was really clear was the power that money had to put races into play and to tip the balance in a lot of races.”
The Wisconsin election had a couple of quirks. Many voters considered the recall illegitimate and opposed the Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, on that basis. A state law that allows incumbents facing recall (but not their challengers) to raise unlimited funds also helped Walker. But the basic lesson holds: Democrats were heavily outspent and lost. And that financial disadvantage looks as if it’s going to be perpetuated in many contests this fall, including the presidential race.
So what do you do if you’re a Democrat?
The AFL-CIO has decided to focus on organizing and grassroots persuasion, hoping this can overcome the blitz of television advertising that well-funded campaigns can afford. In Wisconsin, and in an Ohio ballot initiative last November to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees, the AFL-CIO conducted experiments on how best to win support under such an ad blitz. The results suggested that personal contact by friends or acquaintances (including an explanation of why a given ad was misleading) was most effective, persuading 20 percent to 30 percent more voters than those who were left alone. The same dynamic applies in commerce: Businesses are eager to reach consumers through online social networks because recommendations from friends carry more weight than traditional advertising.
As a result, Podhorzer says, “We’re recruiting activists and saying: ‘Who are your friends? Are you willing to talk to them? Are you willing to talk to the people in your neighborhood, or people who have some other affinity with you?’ If they are, then we provide training and information.” The focus, he says, is on “quality over quantity.”
This same strategy is being deployed by President Obama’s reelection team, which will rely much more heavily on grass-roots organizing than will the Romney campaign, in part because it cannot match the other side’s anticipated spending. On Wednesday, top Obama officials conceded feeling “anxious” about their opponent’s ability to blanket the airwaves. Earlier this week, the campaign rolled out an elaborate online organizing tool dubbed “Dashboard” to help activists recruit friends and neighbors. As with the AFL-CIO’s approach, the hope is that personal contact will prove more effective than traditional methods of campaigning.
Whether it’ll work is anyone’s guess. For all that the Obama campaign enthuses about technology and social networks, its strategy stems partly from necessity. In 2008, Obama outspent John McCain three to one; this time, the president’s advisers expect to see him outspent three to one—not nearly so bad as what happened in Wisconsin, but a disadvantage nonetheless. Republican super-PACs such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS are already running millions of dollars worth of television ads in Senate races nationwide—spending unlikely to be matched by Democrats. “For the AFL-CIO, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be doing television advertising,” Podhorzer says.
Instead, labor will try to build an infrastructure of activists that will endure beyond this election. If that model performs, it will suggest a limit to money’s power in politics. But there’s probably also a limit to what even the strongest organization can overcome. “If the seven-to-one spending margin in Wisconsin happens on a national scale,” Podhorzer says, “then we’re not a democracy anymore.”