Skip to main content

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and join us at Facebook.com/CNNopinion.

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.

Campaign money from private equity
Romney: U.S. econ woes a 'prairie fire'

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT