Organized labor is likely to spend upwards of half a billion dollars to elect Joe Biden. That money will not only be in the form of direct contributions but many millions more in organization. Get-out-the-vote operations, phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, and so much more.
But the rank-and-file members of unions have their own ideas about who should be president. They voted in surprisingly large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and despite a massive campaign by labor leadership to convince them otherwise, they appear ready to give their support to Trump in 2020.
“We haven’t moved the needle here,” said Mike Knisley, executive secretary-treasurer with the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, who estimated that about half of his members voted for Trump in 2016 and will do so again. “Even if given all the information that’s been put out there, all the facts — just pick an issue that the president has had his hands in — it doesn’t make a difference.”
Among members of North America’s Building Trades Unions, there is a dead heat in six swing states, with Biden receiving 48 percent of the vote and Trump 47 percent, according to an internal poll shared with POLITICO.
Trump, who has shown in the past that he can attract traditional Democratic voters, appears to be having even greater success in 2020.
“He has a very, very, very solid foundation of our members,” said James Williams, a vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, whose surveys of members painted a similar picture. “They connect with his messaging and a lot of the fear-mongering going all the way back to when he was first elected with, ‘Be afraid of the immigrant. The immigrant’s here to take your job.’ That resonated with our membership. They feel like their way of life and their way of living is under attack and without really understanding the dynamics at play. I mean, the immigrant worker is being abused by employers.”
The clueless union vice president identified the reason the union members are supporting Trump but can’t quite believe it. “They feel like their way of life and their way of living is under attack” finds a familiar echo across the country among the working class and less educated whites. Elites like the union vice president don’t understand it. Trump has successfully framed the election for them as one of survival.
How that plays out politically will spell the difference between victory and defeat.
Trump’s support in some unions could provide an opening for him in the Midwest, particularly in the key Rust Belt states that powered Trump’s victory in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — where union voters have a sizable impact. Roughly one in six voters nationwide is either a union member or comes from a union household, according to a Gallup Poll earlier this month, and that number rises to more than one in four in states like Michigan.
Hillary Clinton won the union vote in 2016 by less than half the margin Barack Obama got in 2012. Given the extraordinary closeness of the race in those Midwestern battlegrounds, if history repeats itself, Trump is likely to duplicate the feat of winning all three states — and the election.