Obama Gains Major Union Endorsement And, Potentially, $100 Million War Chest

WASHINGTON -- The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees formally endorsed President Barack Obama's reelection on Tuesday, beginning an extensive and expensive process to, in part, shore up the president's support among white working class voters.

AFSCME officials said they're looking to spend more on the 2012 elections than the $93 million spent in 2010, hinting that the figure would top $100 million. The early plans, according to those officials, are to capitalize on the politics of the moment -- centered on the issue of income inequality and propelled by important victories for union workers in Ohio and Wisconsin -- and undertake one of the more comprehensive field operations in election history.

"We want to go from a base of 58 percent or so to try and get it up to 70 percent in terms of support for Obama," said Larry Scanlon, AFSCME's political director. "You have to start early, which is one of the reasons we did the endorsement today. There is work to be done."

Atop that to-do list is bringing back into the fold disaffected Obama supporters and the white working class voters who, according to a much-discussed recent New York Times article, are being all but written off by Democratic Party operatives.

The Obama campaign has disputed the premise of the article, noting that the president did better among white working class voters in 2008 than the last two Democratic presidential nominees. On Tuesday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, in Washington, D.C., to attend the AFSCME board meeting, pledged to make a stronger commitment in 2012.

"The President is fighting for a job-creating economy that's built to last -- one where hard work pays, responsibility is rewarded, and everyone does their fair share and plays by the same rules," Messina said, according to remarks emailed by an AFSCME official. "In other words, he's fighting for an economy where middle-class families and dedicated workers like those AFSCME represents can succeed."

To help with that effort, AFSCME is set to borrow from the game plan that the union once ran against Obama. Backing Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, the public employees union helped transform her image from predominantly a party establishment type to a working class champion. Clinton wins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky followed and, ironically, began to solidify the perception that Obama had trouble relating to those very same voters.

"We had to go back in the general election to persuade them that you don't want to vote on the basis of color. You want to vote on another color, green," said Scanlon.

So, for the next year and a half, the union is preparing to present Obama to its members much like it did Clinton. The money that AFSCME will save from not having to contest a Democratic primary (roughly $7 million to $10 million) will be spent on voter contact operations. The union will narrow down the potential field of Republican-leaning voters who may be persuadable and write off the others. For the broad swath of union members, there will be an extensive issue education campaign.

"We say here is what the candidate's positions are on the issues," said Scanlon. "We say to our members, 'We inform, you decide.' We find one on one is the best, as opposed to 10 pieces of mail or phone calls."

The primary goal, however, will be to draw a sharp contrast between the president and whoever emerges as his general election opponent. On that front, the union feels it is on solid footing. Internal polling currently shows Obama with a 65 percent to 26 percent margin over Mitt Romney and even larger margins over Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.

"We did polling of our membership. We had conversations with our leadership. And the depth of the support surprised me. You have high expectations when you elect somebody, and a lot of times you get disappointed because you don't get everything you want. It is not just labor, but you saw that with environmentalists, gay rights issues, African-American issues. You can't please everybody all the time," said Scanlon. "The issue for Obama in this reelection campaign is how do you persuades your less-than-ardent supporters that he is the better choice than what is out there."