Mitt Romney has pushed the 2012 electoral battleground into union-friendly territory — putting organized labor on the defensive in states it typically has little trouble holding.
A recent demoralizing election loss in Wisconsin and simmering disappointment with President Obama poses further challenges for labor to rally its troops this election season.
Among the 10 or so swing states where the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is battling President Obama, about half are populous, union-heavy states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, where in most polls Mr. Obama holds precarious single-digits poll leads.
Mr. Romney is performing particularly strongly in Ohio and Wisconsin, where the president is hanging on to average poll leads of only 1.8 percentage points and 3.4 percentage points, respectively, according to a composite of polls compiled by the website Real Clear Politics.
Several other swing states feature right-to-work laws that significantly handcuff union power. They include Florida, Virginia, Iowa and North Carolina. In each, neither candidate has more than a 4-percentage-point average lead, Real Clear Politics says.
“Unions have good reason to be worried about their political position, especially in state and public unions,” said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Unions have a challenge in unifying their membership to support them and their candidates at the ballot box.”
Organized labor is smarting after a high-profile loss in Wisconsin this month, when the electorate voted to keep Gov. Scott Walker — and his anti-union policies — in office. Unions, livid at the Republican for his 2011 law to curtail public-sector collective-bargaining rights, pushed back hard with a massive ground game to defeat him in a recall election. Yet almost 40 percent of union households voted to support the governor.
Union activists say the Wisconsin recall has bolstered, not depressed, their resolve to re-elect Mr. Obama.
“Their courage sparked a movement and has inspired working people everywhere. That’s a beginning, not an end,” said Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift.
Ms. Swift added that recall elections are “uniquely difficult” to win and that it doesn’t reflect the politics of her state.
Labor also points to Ohio, where seven months earlier voters repealed a law limiting the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
But critics of unions said the Wisconsin recall wasn’t an anomaly and that Republican candidates are no longer apprehensive to campaign on labor’s turf, a point highlighted by Romney campaign stops the past week in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.
“It is definitely a telling indicator,” Fred Wszolek, a spokesman with the pro-business group the Workforce Fairness Institute, said of the Wisconsin recall. “You used to not cross Big Labor if you wanted some of these states because you wanted to keep peace there. But attitudes have changed.”
Labor’s traditionally massive and organized electoral ground game will look different this year compared with 2008 election cycle.
The Service Employees International Union said Tuesday it will focus its turn-out-the-vote field campaign in eight battleground states — about half the number it focused on in 2008. The union is expected to spend at least $85 million on Obama re-election efforts, about the same as it spent in 2008.
Still, SEIU said its Obama re-election effort, which will target Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, will include 100,000 union and nonunion member volunteers for its largest and most targeted political field campaign in its 91-year history.
The AFL-CIO also is taking a different approach this election cycle after announcing last year it would it would focus its 2012 political efforts on candidates according to their stances on issues important to labor — not based on party affiliation.
“Our role is not to build power of a political party or a candidate. It’s to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our economy, our country,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a 2011 speech at Washington’s National Press Club.
But while unions gave Mr. Obama’s initial presidential campaign a boost four years ago — and certainly will again this year — he is less reliant on their labor’s massive grass-roots ground game than most other Democratic candidates, as he had built up his own sophisticated voter mobilization effort.
A less-than-symbiotic relationship with the president will be fine with some in the labor movement, who have accused him of not doing enough to push key labor initiatives, including the “card check” measure that would allow unions to organize locals if a majority of employees sign cards or petitions — bypassing the traditional secret-ballot method of organizing.
“It’s not as if [labor] is filled with an enormous sense of gratitude that the president and the Democrats have given them what they wanted,” said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank. “Democratic presidents are going to hope for a lot of help from labor, but they’re not going to put their eggs entirely in the labor basket.”