Business Vows to Get Out the Vote

A GOP-industry push is taking a page from labor's playbook

With control of the Senate and House likely to hang on a handful of razor-thin races in November, organized labor's ability to get its members to the polls could make all the difference. Much of the AFL-CIO's $32 million political budget is devoted to mailings, phone banks, and work-site leafletting aimed at the rank and file. The effect has been startling: Members of union households cast 23% of all votes in 2000, up from 19% in 1992--even though unions represent just 13.5% of the workforce. Now, the GOP and business are trying to emulate labor's success on the ground.

Colorado Republicans were in a celebratory mood on election night 2000. They had delivered the state to George W. Bush, and polls showed that the GOP would keep control of the state legislature. But as late tallies trickled in, reality hit: Democrats had turned out thousands of voters in the final hours. GOPers were shocked to find that, after 40 years, they had lost control of the state Senate. Says Jack Stansbery, the Republican state political director: "The Democrats caught us by surprise with the labor turnout."

Republicans nationwide have no intention of enduring another night like that. Instead, say GOP leaders, they plan to neutralize the labor vote this year with an unprecedented get-out-the-vote campaign of their own. In the 72 hours leading up to Nov. 5, thousands of Republican volunteers will fan out in key congressional districts to make sure that would-be voters actually cast their ballots. They'll knock on doors, chat up neighbors, glad-hand citizens at meetings, deliver absentee ballots, and ferry voters to the polls on Election Day. It will amount to "street-by-street warfare," vows House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

With control of the U.S. Senate hinging on a single seat and House leadership on six seats, every vote will count. The airwaves are already saturated with campaign ads, so getting voter attention increasingly requires old-fashioned personal contact. The Republican National Committee found through a two-year study and experiments in three states that tactics such as home visits and volunteer phone banks increased GOP turnout by as much as 10% (charts). "This is the future of politics," says White House Political Director Kenneth B. Mehlman.

Corporate America has gotten the grassroots message, too. True, federal law prohibits employers from directly encouraging employees to contribute to or vote for a particular candidate. But they can target executives and employees who own stock in the company, which, thanks to 401(k)s, about half of all workers do today. Companies are also free to push politicians on managers, executives, and shareholders. In addition, there are no legal restraints on bringing candidates into the workplace, encouraging workers to go to the polls, or distributing material that portrays business-friendly pols in a good light. "We're letting them make up their own minds," says Thomas Coleman, a vice-president at BASF Corp., which is e-mailing voter guides to workers and hosting candidate visits.

Others are following suit, including International Paper Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp. Overall, more than 3,000 employers will have contacted millions of workers between now and Nov. 5, according to the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), a coalition that is leading the grassroots campaign.

Business and the GOP still have a way to go to match labor's pull. A July BIPAC poll found that labor had already contacted 29% of Midwest voters. "They're still talking to more people than we are," says Darrell Shull, head of BIPAC's effort. So he's focusing on tight races where business can make a difference. The GOP hopes to up turnout by 2% to 4%. That doesn't sound like much, but Bush likely would have welcomed a 2% cushion back in Florida.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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