Importance of the Union Vote

Jeff Alworth

Importance of the Union Vote

The protests in Wisconsin continue on after nearly two weeks, and the governor there, Scott Walker, continues to stake his term on the issue of collective bargaining. All of this is predicated on the idea that unions are critical to the Democratic Party, and so Nate Silver wondered: well, are they? His answer (yes) is fascinating, but I'd argue that it understates the case with respect to statewide elections. We'll consider that in a moment.

First, let's look at Nate's analysis. Poring through a huge dataset from the National Annenberg Election Survey, he tried to isolate the variables and determine the impact of separate effects on voting preference:

I ran a logistic regression analysis on the Annenberg data, looking at respondents who said they planned to vote for either Barack Obama or John McCain (I eliminated those who said they were undecided or planned to vote for a minor-party candidate).... After eliminating those respondents who refused to answer one or more demographic questions, I was left with a data set of 14,927 respondents, of which about 51 percent said they planned to vote for Barack Obama (fairly close to his actual vote of about 53 percent).

His findings? The three most important constellations of variables were race (overwhelmingly the most important), followed by religion and union membership. Nate summarizes the importance of unions:

Specifically, 64 percent of union members in the Annenberg data set voted for Barack Obama. By contrast, if these same voters were not members of unions but every other demographic characteristic were held constant, the analysis predicts that 52 percent of them would have voted for Mr. Obama instead. Thus, the marginal impact of being a union member on the likelihood on voting for Mr. Obama was 12 percentage points (64 percent less 52 percent) on average.... There was also an effect from voters who were not members of a union themselves, but had someone else in their household who was (these voters are designated as “union member in household” in the chart). These respondents, which represent about 5 percent of the Annenberg data set, were between 8 and 9 percentage points more likely to vote for Mr. Obama than they otherwise would be. Combined, the union voters and the union-household voters improved Mr. Obama’s share of the vote by 1.7 percentage points, according to the model.

In his careful way, he continues on to describe why this probably understates the effect, which, in a two-candidate race, would telescope to a 4.8% margin between the two candidates. And 4.8% is, in elective terms, massive.

Still, one imagines the effect on a race for statewide office--particularly governor--would be quite a bit larger among members of public unions. Because, while Democrats are generally supportive of working people, the connection between a president and a school teacher is quite weak. Not so between a governor and a school teacher. Republicans have done more than target public unions; they've demonized the workers who comprise them. This was precisely Walker's calculation when he triggered the current Wisconsin war.

In November, five states elected Democratic governors by margins smaller than Nate's 4.8%: Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, Vermont, and Connecticut. In all of them, state workers have the right to collectively bargain. This year, seven states have proposals to weaken public unions and Republicans in two of these (Wisconsin and Ohio) had relatively close gubernatorial wins. The effort to roll back union rights is designed to politically cripple one of the strongest, well-organized, and wealthy opponents of Republican candidates.

Of course, gaming the system is as old as organizing. Republicans have had a string of wins lately, notably in Citizens United. They're trying to cash in on yet another, targeting their most powerful remaining foe. Preventing state workers from collectively bargaining and making it more difficult for them to collect and spend money would be a massive bonanza at the statewide level. And that's why the Wisconsin capitol is still packed with people after two weeks.

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    I think it is tricky trying to isolate the contribution of one voting block, in this case union household, to an election by just their voting pattern. There are two (at least) significant effects that Silver leaves out. First is how unions contribute to the general campaign effort. He does say “the biggest way that unions help the Democrats is by donating to them.” He also leaves out the volunteer workers unions provide to campaigns. Both are significant. Second, and even trickier to analyze, is how unions effect the set of issues a candidate presents to the public and how the voters react to those issue positions. I am less likely in Oregon, for example, to support a candidate who wants to build the Columbia River Crossing project (a priority for some unions) or who does not support paying to send high school students abroad (my priority issue but clearly not supported by teacher unions). Taking a position to get union voters often involves losing other voters (and the other way round, as the Wisconsin Republicans may find out).

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      I think Nate's aware of those factors, but in a regression analysis, you can only work with a set of fixed factors. But I think your points cut both ways. While you may be less likely to support a union candidate who is pushing for a certain project, many conservatives and moderates may have the opposite reaction. And that's my point: unions are at their most powerful when they directly affect voters' lives.

      No data, but my guess is that that effect will nearly always result in a net positive effect for the union-backed candidate (who is almost uniformly a Dem these days).

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    From Paul Krugman:

    “A power grab—an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy.”

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