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Citizens United could be Obama's friend in Ohio

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
May 16, 2012 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama campaign in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama campaign in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Sracic: Ohio is crucial to win in 2012 presidential election
  • Citizens United lets corporations, and unions, spend without limits for candidate
  • Sracic: Obama stands to get huge union support with crucial door-to-door voter drives
  • Romney gets unlimited Super PAC cash, he says, but lacks boots on the ground in Ohio

Editor's note: Paul Sracic is a professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

(CNN) -- During his 2010 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made headlines by directly criticizing the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the political funding case. He said Citizens United would "open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."

Certainly the decision has made it much easier for corporations and unions to directly spend unlimited sums of money in support of their favored candidates. One wonders, however, whether Obama realized at the time how much his own political allies, and therefore his own re-election effort, might benefit from Citizens United.

This is nowhere more likely to be true than in Ohio, and the one thing that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree upon is that the path to victory for both parties in November runs through the Buckeye State.

The first real hint of how Citizens United might benefit Obama in Ohio came in the weeks leading up to the recent primary in a Pennsylvania congressional district that borders Ohio. As a result of redistricting, the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's 12th District, which runs southeast from the Ohio border beginning just north of Pittsburgh, pitted two incumbent members of Congress against one another. Organized labor was determined to punish one of the Democrats, Jason Altmire, for voting against the Affordable Care Act.

Paul Sracic
Paul Sracic

Toward this end, the Workers' Voice Super PAC, formed by the AFL-CIO, funded an independent campaign operation for their endorsed candidate, Mark Critz. With the union's help, Critz, a first-term member of Congress who had been elected in a 2010 special election to fill the unexpired term of late John Murtha, was able to eke out an upset win over the initially favored Altmire.

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What is really interesting about what happened in this Pennsylvania race, however, is that the AFL-CIO referred to what it was doing as a kind of "trial run" for the general election.

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Almost all of the commentary on the Citizens United case has focused on conservative groups funding Republican candidates. But Citizens United also freed up unions to spend unlimited amounts of their money to directly advocate for the election of labor-friendly candidates, usually Democrats.

Whereas conservative leaning groups have so far mainly used their money to fund campaign advertising, the AFL-CIO and other unions have made it clear that their money will be spent on grassroots get-out-the-vote activities. This is what they did in Pennsylvania.

Just imagine what this might mean in the general election in Ohio. Mitt Romney will likely face two separate yet well-funded and well-organized ground operations knocking on doors throughout the state. The Obama team's 2008 get-out-the-vote operations were tremendously effective. This year, however, organized labor will be able to open up their treasuries to fund their own parallel operations.

This is not to say that the pro-Romney groups will be silent.

Super PACs backing Romney demonstrated during the Republican primary that they could raise seemingly endless amounts of cash and spend it effectively to drive down support for their opponents. The AFL-CIO's own political director told the Los Angeles Times that he expects labor to be outspent 20 to 1. Still, beyond religious groups and perhaps the tea party groups, Republicans do not really have any freestanding organizations upon which to piggyback their door-to-door efforts.

This is significant because recent polls indicate the margins in Ohio and in fact all of the swing states are razor thin this year. In close races, turnout is everything. One of the reasons that Karl Rove was so successful in making sure that his boss, George W. Bush, was successful in the Buckeye state in 2000 and 2004 was that he understood the importance of an aggressive and well-organized get-out-the-vote plan, especially in the crucial 72 hours leading up to Election Day.

It is an open question, however, whether Rove's 72-hour task force would still be as successful in Ohio in a post-Citizens United world, where the unions have much better funding opportunities and are freed from long-standing restraints on contacting nonmembers.

Beyond religious groups, whose role should nevertheless not be underestimated, Republicans do not really have any freestanding organizations upon which to piggyback their door-to-door efforts. Moreover, in Ohio, unions have something else that is working in their favor.

Last year, organized labor worked furiously to place a measure on the ballot repealing a bill signed into law by by Republican Gov. John Kasich restricting the bargaining rights of public employees.  They ended up gathering more than three times the signatures necessary, and when Election Day rolled around, 62% of voters cast their ballots in favor of the union position.  

The names and addresses gathered, contacts made, and skills learned during that campaign will be available to groups like Workers' Voice in 2012.

Of course, this does not mean that Obama is a shoo-in to win Ohio or the election in November. It does suggest, however, that regardless of what the national head-to-head polls say, Romney will need more than television commercials and mailings to win in Ohio. He will also need a grassroots get-out-the-vote strategy that outperforms even the plans of Rove. So far, the team that Romney has in place has not demonstrated that they grasp the importance of this type of work.

It may be telling that when Obama kicked off his re-election campaign at Ohio State University on Saturday, he emphasized that he would win the race "door by door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood." He said this secure in the knowledge that organized labor will have thousands of volunteers who are willing and, thanks to Citizens United, able to be on the ground rustling up every last vote for him.

So, if Obama has the opportunity to give another State of the Union address in February of 2013, he might just want to look down at the justices sitting in the front row and, instead of criticizing them, give them a little wink.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.

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