Skip to main content

Citizens United could be Obama's friend in Ohio

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Wed May 16, 2012
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
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
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
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
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
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
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
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
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.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
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.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT