If Al Gore finds himself standing across from Chief Justice Rehnquist, taking the oath of office in January, it would be fitting if Paul Lemmon were holding the Bible. As Pennsylvania state director for the national AFL-CIO, it's Lemmon's job to make sure that the state's 23 crucial electoral votes end up in Gore's column. Raised by Italian immigrants in the gritty coal and industrial heart of southwestern Pennsylvania, Lemmon is a longtime union official and organizer, first with the United Mine Workers and then with the AFL-CIO's national headquarters. In 1996 Lemmon oversaw the labor federation's voter mobilization efforts in 13 midwestern states, and earlier this year, he worked the Iowa caucuses. "Now," he says, "they've brought me back to Pennsylvania."
That's a state where labor's turnout is likely to determine who wins. In 1996 voters from union households in Pennsylvania made up 29 percent of all voters and handed the state to Bill Clinton. According to the AFL-CIO, Clinton lost among nonunion voters in several industrial states in 1996, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, but he won those states by carrying huge majorities of union voters. In an attempt to guarantee a repeat, Lemmon is coordinating a statewide voter education and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drive aimed at turning out union voters at a rate 15 to 20 percent higher than the public at large. Using a strategy that was field-tested in 1996 and 1998, Lemmon's statewide team is organizing a systematic, member-to-member political education campaign centered on in-depth discussion of issues, not merely on candidates. Rather than telling members which way to vote, the AFL-CIO's effort is aimed at giving union members a conscious appreciation of labor's political muscle. "It's a matter of exciting them about feeling the power they have in the process," Lemmon says. "People realize that labor unions are back."
Labor's GOTV effort is taking place against the backdrop of a decades-long decline in voter turnout. Four years ago, for the first time in post-World War II history, less than half of America's voting-age population trooped to the polls to vote in a presidential election. This year, with less-than-inspiring candidates put forward by the two major parties and third-party candidates who have failed to create much excitement, there are preliminary indications that even more voters may stay home.
The causes of this decline are myriad--from post-Watergate and post-Vietnam disaffection to the deteriorating conduct of political campaigns, to the Tweedledee-Tweedledum nature of many races, to the erosion of political and social institutions. The two parties barely make a pretense any longer of maintaining grass-roots, precinct-by-precinct organizations. They rely instead on television and on sophisticated, computer-driven targeting of so-called "persuadables." By going after the elusive swing voter, often no more than a tiny segment of the voting population, the parties--and their pollsters, consultants, and direct mail gurus--have abandoned likely nonvoters and the unregistered.
With nonvoting being systemic, short of a revolution in the political culture there is little chance that anything--least of all, voter registration and GOTV--will have more than marginal impact on overall turnout. Yet that very fact means that organizations that can mobilize people to vote are golden. The AFL-CIO, having proven in recent years that it can deliver millions of voters to polling places on election day, is far and away the most effective--and, to the Republican Party's chagrin, the vast majority of those votes go to Democrats. This year the AFL-CIO's effort is being complemented by a parallel campaign launched by the NAACP, whose members and supporters cast their votes for Democrats in an even more lopsided fashion. Should Gore win, or should the Democrats win back control of Congress, the grass-roots power of the AFL-CIO and the NAACP will be the reason why. That's especially true now that the two main Republican-oriented grass-roots groups are, for different reasons, hobbled.
The Christian Coalition, weakened and in disarray, wields a mere fraction of the power it did a decade ago, and the National Rifle Association may find itself matched tit for tat by a host of gun control groups in the all-important suburbs.
In Pennsylvania, Lemmon and his colleagues from the state AFL-CIO--including about 100 rank-and-file activists and staff--divided the state into five geographic zones and began meeting in August with every local union president in the state, seeking to identify a network of activists, first within each local, then at each workplace, and finally inside each shift change. Since the organizing is based on the principle that workers are most receptive to messages from other workers who speak their language, public-sector workers are being recruited to carry the message to other public-sector workers; ditto for private-sector unions and for the building trades. Then workers and their families are reached through continual workplace contacts, home visits, phone calls, and mail.
"It's got to be multiple hits," says Lemmon, adding that the goal is to ensure that every union member is contacted between eight and 13 times by November.
The key to the state is Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold, according to Joe Rauscher, president of the Central Labor Council in Philadelphia. Every weekend during September and October, up to 600 rank-and-file union members have volunteered to do member-to-member walking tours. "We get people from UFCW to talk to other UFCW members, and so on," he says, referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has 23,000 members in Philadelphia. The goal of the effort in the city is to deliver a 300,000-vote plurality for Gore, one-third higher than the 225,000 votes by which Clinton carried Philly in 1996, says Rauscher.
Pat Gillespie, business manager for the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council in Philadelphia, acknowledges that the apathy and disinterest plaguing the public at large have an impact on labor, too, noting the energy it takes to get people registered and get them to the polls. "We're dunning them, but it's a hard sell," says Gillespie. Yet he says that the 70,000 unionists in eastern Pennsylvania who belong to the 42 building trades locals--electricians, laborers, bricklayers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, and so on--will turn out almost en bloc. "A number of unions will get close to 90 percent turnout," he says. "But they work it."
The mastermind of organized labor's election drive this year is Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO. From his office on the seventh floor of the federation's national headquarters, he enjoys a spectacular view of the White House, just over the treetops of Lafayette Square. Rosenthal appears to be in a good mood, and no wonder: After some fragmentation, most of the AFL-CIO's constituent unions have come together to endorse Gore, including the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, both major players in the battleground states of the Midwest. Across a conference table, surrounded by shelves filled with hard hats and union caps side by side with binders and stacks of folders, the fast-talking, New York-accented Rosenthal reels off statistics to show labor's expected clout in November.
"Everywhere we've run The Program--that's what we call it, The Program--there's been a higher turnout of union voters," he says. Example: In Iowa, during the Democratic caucuses in January, voters from union households made up 35 percent of caucus-goers in areas where labor focused its efforts, and less than 10 percent in areas where they did not. "It works," he says. "We've set up in a few states little controlled experiments like that. You can look at place after place where we've done this stuff."
What the AFL-CIO is doing this year is a nationwide extension of the approach it used experimentally in 1996 in places such as Wisconsin and southern California. That year, the AFL-CIO spent as much as $35 million, most of it going to expensive (and largely ineffective) television advertisements. But in some regions, organized labor opted for an on-the-ground, issues-based campaign. In those areas, rather than a flurry of last-minute, pre-election activity, organizers emphasized the use of union volunteers to make phone calls and knock on the doors of fellow union members far in advance of election day. Instead of just trying to get members to vote for the union-endorsed candidate, organizers stressed issues of concern to union members: right-to-work laws, minimum wage, workplace safety, job training assistance, Social Security, and efforts to restrict political activity by unions under the rubric of "paycheck protection." Partly as a result, says Rosenthal, union voters made up 23 percent of the electorate in 1996, compared to about 14 percent in 1994. And while Bill Clinton and Bob Dole split the nonunion vote, union voters went for Clinton 64 to 28.
In 1998 the AFL-CIO used the program more widely. Where it was utilized, fully three-quarters of union members ended up voting for the union-endorsed candidate--yet only about one in 10 union members were reached. This year the federation is involved in a much more aggressive organizing effort, launched in March 1999. "It's the earliest we've ever started," says Rosenthal, who adds that the AFL-CIO is targeting 25 states and 71 congressional districts with an all-out campaign. Upwards of 500 organizers have been trained at AFL-CIO headquarters and then dispatched to targeted areas. "Basically, it's a throwback to what we were doing in the 1930s and '40s, when we were at our peak," he says. "It is a culture change."
Parallel with the AFL-CIO's Labor 2000 effort, the NAACP launched its own unprecedented GOTV effort in July by creating the National Voter Fund, an issues-oriented advocacy group that plans to spend $9 million to maximize African-American turnout. Targeting 40 congressional districts and more than a dozen key states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri, the fund operates independently but draws on the resources of 2,200 NAACP chapters across the country, along with thousands of black churches and community organizations.
Although the NAACP has long conducted voter-registration campaigns--and, this year, having already registered 2.8 million people, is well on the way toward its goal of four million--the Voter Fund is something of a culture change as well. For the first time, according to veteran organizer Heather Booth, the fund's director, the NAACP has a sister organization able to directly target its resources on specific electoral races and to use sophisticated, computer-based techniques to match voter files to the NAACP's membership lists. "Our goal," says Booth, "is to identify people who can become neighbor-to-neighbor, community-to-community leaders [and] who can build local, on-the-ground operations."
In Philadelphia the NAACP's Voter Fund is mobilizing the city's 280,000 African-American voters, registering voters at supermarkets, shopping centers, transit centers, community colleges, high schools, and churches. Like the AFL-CIO's campaign, the Voter Fund is concentrating on issues, using its member activists to talk to other members and potential new voters about bread-and-butter concerns and key civil rights issues such as affirmative action. And, organizers say, it's more than registration, with machinery being put into place to maintain contact with voters right through election day. Like labor, NAACP organizers will sustain repeated "touches" to voters and potential voters, through phone banks, direct mail, community forums, a motorcade, and extensive use of well-known African-American performers and radio personalities. Perhaps most important, a network of 30 black churches in Philadelphia--and 170 more in surrounding areas--is working closely with the NAACP, organizing GOTV sermons and events on the first two Sundays of October. "We know which ministers are fairly civic-minded," says J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the NAACP in Philadelphia.
To call the African-American vote crucial for Democrats is an understatement. According to David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in 1996 Clinton lost among white voters 43 to 46, while blacks split 84 to 12 for Clinton. "There's a great deal of uncertainty when you mobilize a white voter to the polls," says Bositis. "With blacks, that's not the case."
And this year, black voters are concentrated in states that are up for grabs in the presidential contest, including the band of states from New Jersey to Missouri and key southern states like Florida and Georgia. The NAACP's National Voter Fund seeks to improve on 1998, when, in several states, black voters turned out at a higher percentage than did white voters. In Michigan blacks were 13 percent of the voting-age population--but comprised 19 percent of the overall vote, splitting 70 to 27 for the Democrats.
Of course, there is enormous overlap between organized labor and the African-American community, especially in cities like Philadelphia. And no one knows that better than Janet Ryder, statewide political director of the 38,000-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and vice president of the city's Central Labor Council. A veteran organizer, with nearly two decades in the political trenches, Ryder is not only spearheading the turnout drive among teachers, but she is working alongside the NAACP to bring registration and GOTV into Philadelphia's high schools. Together, the AFT and NAACP identified 18 high schools, developed lists of students eligible to vote, and scheduled assemblies with NAACP representatives. "We hype 'em up!" says Ryder.
Overall, of course, voters this year are anything but hyped up. With the exception of a boomlet of interest around Senator John McCain's quixotic challenge to Governor Bush, voter interest in politics has flagged throughout the year. In mid-September, the Voter Involvement Index maintained by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy languished at 25 percent, reflecting the number of voters who have paid attention to the campaign. Data collected by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press showed that just 34 percent of Americans showed interest in the two parties' conventions, compared to 44 percent in 1996 and 53 percent in 1992--a lack of interest reflected in record-low viewership of the convention broadcasts. The Pew Research Center found that a big reason for the low voter interest was that nearly half of registered voters felt that "things will be pretty much the same for me" regardless of who wins the election.
"What we know is that voter turnout will be low," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE). "We have a continuing decline of youth interest, which is filtering its way up the electorate." Despite the occurrence of competitive primaries in both parties, primary turnout through August was, at 17.7 percent, the second lowest since 1960, according to a CSAE study--and no higher than in 1996, when President Clinton's nomination was uncontested. This decline was in spite of heralded reforms meant to encourage participation, including simplified registration procedures, early voting, easier absentee voting, mail ballots, and, in Arizona, experimental Internet voting. Turnout in November, Gans predicts, could be as low as 46 percent--or as high as just 52 percent if voter interest is piqued in the final weeks of the campaign.
Especially glaring is the abdication of the two political parties in maintaining a grass-roots infrastructure. "The political parties are fictions three years out of four," says Lee Sigelman, professor of political science at George Washington University. "There has been a withering away of big-city political machines, in particular." A senior Democratic Party official acknowledges that the shrinkage of the cities, and the concomitant growth of the suburbs with their insularity and more spread-out population, has helped weaken the old ward systems in many cities.
In Pennsylvania--where turnout has fallen from 68 percent in 1964 to 49 percent in 1996--labor's organizers are well aware of the decline of the Democratic Party. When it comes to field organization and GOTV efforts, the party is nonexistent across much of the state, says Paul Lemmon. "Probably with the exception of Philadelphia, there is no party structure in Pennsylvania," he says. Even in Philadelphia, once notorious for its well-organized wards, "the labor movement basically is the party," says Joe Rauscher. He says that the party is gradually allowing the ward system to atrophy, leaving committee spots unfilled and failing to groom people for party positions like ward leader.
Even more blunt is Steve Rosenthal. "The parties have become shells to move money," he says. "It used to be that the party had someone on your block, in your workplace, in your district, reminding you to go out and vote. That doesn't exist anymore." Still, Rosenthal says that as the number of voters shrinks, labor can augment its clout. "As everybody else stays home, we become more important."
Though the AFL-CIO, the NAACP's Voter Fund, and just about everyone is making use of vastly improved databases and technology to target voters, the parties and campaigns are using them to communicate only with the most reliable voters and with carefully defined segments of undecided voters. Republicans, especially, lacking the foot soldiers who turn out to support Democrats, spend vast amounts on direct mail, phone calls, and paid canvassers--now aided by an almost military-like precision provided by private data firms. The Pennsylvania GOP has a "comprehensive turnout operation" that includes hundreds of grass-roots workers in all 67 counties, says Lauren Cotter Brobson, state party communications director, disputing charges that the parties have allowed their grass-roots organizations to evaporate. Still, the state GOP relies more heavily on GeoVoter, a Wisconsin-based voter targeting company. "It's an extremely powerful tool," she says.
GeoVoter uses patented software to merge information about voters from dozens of disparate files--from registration lists to voting records, to census data specific for tiny slivers of geography, to magazine subscriptions lists--then blends in the results of millions of telephone surveys about individual voter attitudes on issues like taxes, abortion, and guns. Then all of that information is organized into a computerized display of a neighborhood: Click on a voter's name, and a detailed profile of that voter's household is instantly available. GeoVoter is only one of dozens of such firms. Collectively, their information can be used to mobilize small segments of the electorate--or, in conjunction with negative mailings, to suppress turnout from unwanted voters likely to back one's opponent.
Advances in technology have lowered its price, so that even candidates with small purses can make use of it. Jerry Dorchuck, chairman and CEO of Philadelphia-based PMI/Automated TeleSystems, offers a highly sophisticated system that can send voice-mail messages in the candidate's own voice to voters' homes for a minuscule eight cents a call, or less. "We just took a contract to make one million calls in Pennsylvania for $50,000," he says, or five cents a call. His system can also ask voters to respond to queries about opinions, interests, and concerns--then instantly tabulate those results and dispatch a direct mail piece to that voter on precisely his or her chief concern. "We e-mail the information right into the mail house, which then coordinates with the campaign manager," he says.
Such new technologies will have an enormous impact on the outcome of this year's election, and their power is likely only to grow in the future. But there is no real substitute for on-the-ground armies, like those being organized by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, which can mobilize voters for specific issues and candidates.
Some Democrats believe that Gore's late-summer conversion on anticorporate populism may spark some voters to go to the polls who otherwise might have stayed away. Says Stan Greenberg, the pollster and Gore adviser credited with having helped convince Gore to appeal to working-class voters, "If the election is about big things, turnout will increase." Polls taken in September indicate, indeed, that Gore's post-convention uptick in the polls came almost entirely from women and from people without college degrees earning less than $50,000 a year.
Still, the AFL-CIO's GOTV team isn't taking any chances. "When you're out there at 5:00 a.m., at the plant gate, you're sending a message that this is important," says Lemmon. And on election day, his organization will mount an oldfashioned knock-and-drag operation--watching the polls, seeing who's voted, and knocking on nonvoters' doors to get them out to vote. ¤