WASHINGTON - When millions of independents went out to vote for President Obama and the Democrats in 2008, eight years of Republican rule came to an end.
According to numerous polls, widespread anger about the economy has put a serious dent in this support with pollsters reporting that the "swing voters," most of them working-class moderates and even some conservatives, are now ready to vote against all incumbents, even if it means putting the GOP back in power.
The labor movement made it clear at its Battleground States Conference here last week that it is not giving up on the "swing voters," and it has a not-so-secret weapon with which it is trying and to win them over. That weapon is Working America, a labor organization formed by the AFL-CIO that is signing up non-union members in droves. The group is knocking on doors and talking to tens of thousands of these swing voters every month and, in a report from the field, told labor leaders here that two out of three people it engages at their doors are joining up.
The third who don't join, says Working America, are the most ideologically conservative. The two thirds who do become members represent the 40 percent of voters in the middle of the political spectrum who are the swing voters at election time.
During the three weeks from July 3 through July 24 the organization's canvassers had 69,078 conversations with people who opened 141,924 doors. All of those conversations focused in some way on jobs.
Within the canvassing operation Working America conducted what it says were several "messaging tests" about jobs and the economy with sample sets of the new members it was signing up.
750 of these new members were selected for the tests in Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado. The purpose of the "tests" was to find out where swing voters are on the issues and, from that, provide the labor movement with a clearer picture of the messaging challenges it has to meet in the 2010 elections.
All 750 participants in the four states were asked, "How do you think we can solve the jobs crisis?" The purposely open-ended question produced a very wide range of responses. The most frequent answer, however, "unsure," was given by 39 percent of the respondents.
With the selected sample in one of the states, Pennsylvania, Working America explored how people felt about public employees and government.
Surprisingly, despite sustained attempts by the right to incite anger against teachers and other public sector workers by portraying them as overpaid and ineffectual, this view has gained little traction among Working America's members anywhere in the country, according to the field study report.
In Pennsylvania, even the 5 percent who expressed negative opinions about teachers and other public sector workers, and even those who initially favored privatization, were likely to re-think the issue when the alternative of corporate control of public services was presented.
In addition, Working America spoke with 4,391 members about "the best solution to grow and restore the economy."
Investing in jobs was the most popular solution, selected by 41 percent of Working America members surveyed. Cutting the deficit drew just 2 percent.
Obvious from those numbers, however, a majority did not opt for either choice. The four choices they had to choose from were "cut the deficit," "invest in jobs," "other," and "don't know."
Twenty-one percent said they did not know the best solution, while 34 percent chose "other." Among the main responses for "other" were the following: invest in training for workers; lower taxes on workers; lower taxes on businesses; get rid of Obama; crack down on illegal immigrants and more loans to small business.
The field study examined by labor leaders at their meeting here last week that four drew four immediate conclusions.
The first is that members are very concerned about jobs and it is consistently the best way to start a conversation on the economy and justice issues.
The second is that members have a very wide range of ideas about how to fix the jobs crisis, but the issue of outsourcing comes up far more consistently than anything else.
The third is that people don't have a strong idea of how to fix outsourcing, but there is a very broad belief that it needs to be stopped.
The fourth and most important immediate conclusion is that people respond well to progressive solutions to the problems, especially when the message is coming from a trusted messenger and the message is anchored in jobs. The most successful messages, the Working America field study found, are ones that hold Wall Street accountable for the jobs crisis, make wealthy corporations and the rich pay their fair share to create jobs, invest in public infrastructure, invest in education, replace bad trade deals with fair trade deals and invest in green jobs. Those findings give hope to those who note that the GOP, the Tea Party and the right, generally, offer either no solution or solutions that are not as credible as the solutions offered by Working America canvassers.
Working America's exploration of the issue of immigration also yielded interesting results. Although just 3 percent of the group in the special test mentioned anti-immigrant measures as a way to solve the jobs crisis, David Wehde, a Working America regional director in Minnesota, warned that the tendency of some people to confuse the outsourcing and immigration issues could be a major problem in the coming elections.
He described a canvass he conducted: "Anthony and I approached a house in Circle Pines, Minnesota. Circle Pines is five miles from Lino Lakes, a town that has just passed an English-only ordinance. Both towns are located in Michele Bachmann's district.
"The homeowner was tinkering around in the garage, and was initially very guarded. He was probably in his late forties, early fifties - a big guy with tattoos. After a couple of minutes he bonded with us over outsourcing and told us he was a former union member who had a workplace injury and was now on disability. He signed up and gave us $20 in dues.
"As our rapport built, he mentioned immigration - something like 'what we really need to do is stop these Mexicans from taking our jobs here.' I pivoted back to corporations being responsible for hiring undocumented workers, and he was satisfied with that.
"Still, what I find frightening is this: Who else is going to help him and so many others make the right connections? What if we hadn't spoken to him? Would he have come to the conclusion that it's corporations that really deserve his anger?"
Another interesting part of the labor-backed study examined swing voter attitudes toward government, which the right wing has been describing as the "enemy."
The study noted, to the surprise of Working America staff who put it together, only a small percentage of members mentioned the government and President Obama as problems. "I have found that government sentiment can vary widely depending on the topic," reported Chris West, the Working America phone canvass director. "If I'm on the phone, and I say the government needs to roll out a big jobs program, almost everyone agrees and says yes. But with healthcare, with taxes, you get lots of people saying the government should stay out of it."
He reported that, while some are disgruntled about elected officials and question the ability of government to solve the jobs crisis, on jobs, many of the same people see the government as a necessary part of the solution.
The study showed that there are openings for progressive ideas also on the issue of taxes. Taxing Wall Street to pay for jobs legislation, for example, was very well received and seen as a simple, effective way to address the need for jobs. Swing voters also responded very well to criticism of hedge fund managers for paying lower tax rates than their secretaries, and criticism of corporations that pay no income tax in the states where they do business.
In summary, the biggest problems flow from the uncertainty, anger and confusion over what should be done about jobs and the economy. 21 percent of phone respondents and 30 percent at the door simply don't know what to do. On top of this, the surveyors said, unemployment and the fear of unemployment are devastating people in the swing voter group. 500,000 of Working America's 3 million members, for example, are jobless. The interviews conducted by Working America are filled with fear about feeding families and heavy with the loss of both income and self-esteem. "Individual fear and depression are stronger trends than collective outrage over failed policy, making mobilization of the unemployed a challenge," the report said.
The field report quoted "Robert" of Las Vegas, who said, "I moved from California to Nevada for work, then two months later the economy became horrible. I am a carpenter, and am not afraid of work. I want to work. I have been putting up handyman signs around town. I will do anything to feed my kid."
"This emotional stew holds the seeds of scapegoating, bigotry and a search for easy answers," the report said. "But because we are confronting confusion rather than widely held Tea Party ideology, we also have a real opportunity to educate for progressive change."
Working America and union leaders say they are not discouraged. When workers go door to door, talking to fellow workers, they say, the people who open the doors get a lot more than the sound bytes and message points available in the 24 hour media cycle. Swing voters and all workers, they say, are eager to engage in dialogue, and receptive to the message of good jobs, investment in communities and fair taxes. The challenge, they say, is how to make this connection big enough and strong enough tp impact the 2010 elections in November. It's a challenge, they agree, that must eventually me met, regardless of the election results.