Labor Makes Clinton's Case to Rust Belt Whites Curious About Trump

Unions invest in field operations in Pennsylvania to counter the Republican's rise among white working-class voters.

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Working America's Todd Foose tries to sway suburban Pittsburgh voters to choose Clinton.

Photographer: Ross Mantle for Bloomberg Businessweek

On a hot evening in early July, canvasser Todd Foose, a field director for the union-backed political group Working America, was on a porch in the Pittsburgh suburbs, talking to Cheryl Patalano about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “I don’t like either of them,” Patalano, a 39-year-old librarian, said with a laugh. Foose explained that Working America is endorsing Clinton because of her proposals for the economy. “I know a lot of folks aren’t necessarily superexcited, but one of the things we know about her is that she does have some plans out there, and in the past, when we’ve been able to put good pressure on her from the grass roots, she does respond,” Foose said. “And that’s something we don’t really know for Trump—he doesn’t really seem to respond to anybody other than himself.” That seemed to strike a chord with Patalano.

As Democrats prepare for their national convention to start Monday in Philadelphia, Clinton is counting on one-on-one conversations like these to win over white, working-class Rust Belt voters in November—the voters who are most likely to abandon the Democratic Party for Trump. Founded in 2003, Working America is an AFL-CIO affiliate group for workers who have no union. Today it claims 3 million members, more than any single AFL-CIO union. In 2013 the group’s staff had face-to-face conversations with 46,000 Boston voters, helping former union official Marty Walsh narrowly win his mayoral race. “More and more people are cluttering the airwaves with ads, especially with all the super-PACs,” says Jeremy Bird, a Clinton consultant who served as national field director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “The face-to-face, older-school method is actually a place where you can differentiate yourself from the other candidates.”

In 2012 staff and volunteers for the AFL-CIO, member unions, and other affiliates like Working America knocked on 14 million doors, talked to 3 million employees at their jobs, and made more than 80 million phone calls. Union members voted for President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in key swing states, including by 70 percent to 29 percent in Ohio. Working America members followed a similar pattern, backing Obama by a margin of 34 percentage points. “We’ve been talking to the targets of the Trump phenomenon for 13 years,” says Working America’s executive director, Karen Nussbaum. “We know these folks. We understand their pain.” The group aims to have 500 canvassers in the field by Election Day and to hold 2 million face-to-face conversations this year.

A CNN/ORC poll released on July 17 showed Clinton beating Trump by 8 points overall but trailing among whites without college degrees by 17 points. “White working-class males, specifically, they feel as if this current system is not working for them,” says United Steelworkers Vice President Fred Redmond, a Working America board member. “There are folks in communities throughout the state of Pennsylvania who are considering Trump as an alternative to what they think is a failed system.”

They include Matt Sell, a manager at a scrap metal company who talked to Foose for 15 minutes but wasn’t swayed by his case for Clinton. “We need a shake-up,” he said after Foose left. To him, a vote for Trump was really about sending a message to political insiders in Washington, on both sides of the aisle. “Big Government would say, ‘Hmm, something’s up here,’ ” Sell added. “Will that change anything? I don’t know. But I think that at least the message would be heard.”

Since 1990, Pennsylvania has lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Although technological change has played a role, many residents blame federal regulation of the coal industry and competition from overseas, enabled by free-trade agreements such as Nafta. “We couldn’t even build a battleship if we wanted to, because we have no steel mills in this country to build anything,” says Bob Kepics, a former U.S. Steel employee and the Democratic mayor of Monongahela, Pennsylvania. “If all the thousands of jobs that left were still here, and we were still moving ahead, I would say Donald Trump wouldn’t have a chance.”

No Republican presidential candidate has carried Pennsylvania since 1988, when George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis. Clinton isn’t taking the state for granted: She picked Scranton as the site of her first campaign appearance with Vice President Joe Biden, the city’s most famous son. (The event was canceled in the wake of the Dallas police shootings.) In June the super-PAC backing Clinton, Priorities USA, announced a $10.5 million television ad blitz in Pennsylvania.

Clinton can win the state without a majority of white voters who don’t have college degrees, but Bird says the campaign doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. “You can’t go to Pennsylvania and say we’re just going to blow out Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and some of the more Democratic counties or cities and leave the rest of the state,” says Bird, who ran Obama’s field program in Pennsylvania’s primary in 2008. “We have to play in the rest of the state.”

Trump has no equivalent field operation. Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, is canvassing on behalf of Republican candidates, including incumbent Senator Pat Toomey, but it isn’t directly involved in the presidential race.

The Trump campaign has taken an unusually arm’s-length approach, leaving the state and national parties to occupy a major role in canvassing operations. Bob Bozzuto, the state GOP executive director, says his field operation has had staff talking up Trump door-to-door since May and has more than 50 paid canvassers throughout the state, with plans to add more as the general election campaign gets going. “The enthusiasm we’ve seen in western Pennsylvania I think is unprecedented,” he says. “You’ve never seen it for a Republican.”

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