Big Sky, Big Money

Citizens United decision boosts union canvassers

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 

This is one in a series of stories leading up to the PBS program, "Big Sky, Big Money," airing on Oct.. 30, a co-production of FRONTLINE and Marketplace in association with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior producer for Marketplace and works from the Washington, D.C., bureau. She wrote this report, the first in their series of stories, which the Workshop will run in the weeks leading up to the television program. 

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision paved the way for super PACs and all the money they’re raising and spending in the presidential election. But Citizens United also gave union vote canvassers a big boost. Before Citizens United, they could only call on union members. Now they can appear on anyone's doorstep. And that’s significantly raised their ground game.

To find out just how much, I spent an evening with canvasser Katie Gregg in Loudoun County, Va. 

The Citizens United ruling allows her to stop at any house she wants, but Gregg uses carefully compiled voter lists to find sympathetic ears at the right address. Armed with an iPad, she follows a map with dots marking the 100 doors she’s supposed to knock on tonight. Gregg knocks at her first house, but nobody’s home. She trudges on. She started canvassing just over a year ago for the nonprofit group Working America, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Gregg figures she’s knocked on roughly 10,000 doors in that time and gone through four pairs of shoes.  

As she raises a hand to knock on her eighth door of the night, she imagines what it would be like if she could only talk to union members.

“So this is the first union house that we’ve knocked on," she says. "Of all those houses, I would not have been able to talk to any of those other people."

Before Citizens United, union canvassers could knock on maybe one in 10 doors. They’d ring one doorbell, then have to walk a couple of blocks to the next union member’s house. For years, unions relied on canvassers to remind members to vote. Under Citizens United, they can now broaden their efforts considerably. Unions say their ground troops will now be a much more potent force. And they can counteract some of the negative ads run by the super PACs.

“A lot of those commercials are 30 seconds long," Gregg says. "So even if I spend two minutes at a door with someone, that’s four times the information they would have been getting before. And so, it sends a really strong message.”

Michael Post got the message, loud and clear, when Gregg knocked on his door. He’s going to vote for Mitt Romney for president. But he is undecided in Virginia’s neck-and-neck Senate race, which Gregg is also canvassing for.

I asked Post whether he prefers face-to-face discussions like the one he had with Katie Gregg or TV ads.

“Probably having somebody come right to the door," he says. "Because if I have questions I can ask them.  You can’t ask the TV.”

Gregg gives Post one of her fliers. He says he’ll look it over. Then she’s off to yet another house. The AFL-CIO says it’ll have 400,000 staff and volunteer doorknockers spread across the country by election day. That's almost twice as many as in ’08.

Michael Podhorzer is one of the generals commanding the cavalcade of canvassers. He’s the AFL’s political director. He says the extra boots on the ground helped President Obama build up an early lead in key states like Ohio. “And part of that is coming from the fact that we can talk to, not just union members, but to all blue collar voters,” he says.

So, the Citizens United ruling has a silver lining for unions. But says Charlotte Garden, who teaches labor and constitutional law at Seattle University, “I think it’s probably a fairly thin silver lining.” Garden says labor’s sliver of silver could be buried by the heaps of super PAC gold the Citizens United ruling unleashed. “So far we’re seeing corporate donations to candidates at a 15-to-1 advantage over labor’s donations to candidates,” she says.

Labor is plowing what donations it does get into its ground game. The AFL has created its own super PAC, to fund its canvassing. It’s called Workers’ Voice, and it’s raised more than $7 million so far. Garden says this election is so close that the unions could even the score with their ground troops if they’re well deployed. If labor aims its door-knockers at precisely the right undecided voters in the most important swing states, they could put those states in Obama’s column. And that could help decide the election.

But reaching the undecideds is tricky. And it will take a lot of shoe leather. Which is why Katie Gregg is about to buy a fifth new pair of shoes, as she works up to knocking on her 11,000th door.