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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2317 GMT (0717 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT