By Joe Garofoli
Leaders of the California unions that spent $75 million to defeat Proposition 32‘s union-busting campaign in November discovered something during the bruising battle: 40 percent of likely voters were not watching any Prop. 32-related TV commercials, even though the spots droned on nonstop throughout the fall.
So the forces opposed to the measure, which would have banned the use of union payroll deductions for political contributions, changed tactics.
Fusing a sophisticated data-mining operation with messages sent through social media platforms such as Facebook, the unions changed how they were singling out voters younger than 40 who don’t watch TV. Within weeks, they saw support for their position among younger voters climb from 40 percent to 60 percent.
The move showed the limitations of carpet-bombing TV ads and foreshadowed how the 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation is using new technology to remain relevant in an era where union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin are withering. Insiders say their plan is a microcosm of what President Obama’s vaunted re-election campaign was doing.
In 2013 the giant labor group plans to create an online hub where Californians can organize around local problems such as potholes or concerns about city council members.
Its goal is to create something more durable with these newly tapped voters.
“We now understand a tremendous amount about voters in California,” said Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “Now we’re going to try to use this to create community.”
The organization has invested $9 million over the past three years in a program called Million More Voters to broaden its base beyond union members. Union leaders searched for nonunion voters who shared their beliefs on economic or cultural matters. The program has put them in touch with nearly 4 million Californians.
Hundreds of data points
Over that time, the labor federation has analyzed more than 800 data points on 18 million California voters – melding information such as whether the voters “liked” a local coffee shop on Facebook and their voter registration status.
Using those data profiles, the group found that a sliver of Republicans opposed Prop. 32, which would have drastically altered how labor unions fund their political operations.
That outreach – combined with the door-to-door visits that union members have done for decades – gave organized labor the muscle to help Gov. Jerry Brown defeat Republican Meg Whitman in 2010, despite being vastly out-funded.
In addition to defeating the “paycheck protection” measure in November, union forces used this expanded database to help pass Proposition 30, Brown’s tax-raising measure.
After the election, the labor group has continued to gather information on Californians, unlike past campaigns when they typically folded their operations within weeks after election day.
“We have a bad habit in campaigns,” said Larry Grisolano, one of the Obama campaign’s top advisers who consulted with the labor federation two years ago on how to create the new approach to profiling voters. “After the election, you turn out the lights, you fold up the tents and the residual value of what you did is not even collected because the mission is done – the election is over.”
Underserved by TV
TV “remains the one thing that you can use to hit the most people the most efficiently in the shortest amount of time,” he added. The trouble is that TV “now leaves a sizable chunk completely out or just underserves them.”
One example from the recent election: After the unions realized younger voters weren’t watching Prop. 32 TV ads, they began aiming ads at younger voters whom they had targeted with research on Facebook. They sent online ads – and some direct mail – directly to younger voters. One mail piece sent to these voters was an illustration of text messages exchanged on a cell phone.
Within weeks, the union forces saw young voters coming their way. They were being spoken to in their language – and via their medium of choice.
According to a September survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, only 34 percent of voters under 30 said they watched TV news the previous day; in 2006, 49 percent did. The study also found that one third of young voters got their news from social networks the day before.
Analysts say the unions’ huge investment in new forms of digital outreach is unusual for an organization that is not a major national political party or campaign.
While campaigns nationwide bumped up their digital outreach significantly in 2012, the California Labor Federation’s effort is a “brilliant strategy for growing supporters,” said Rich Masterson, chairman of the CampaignGrid, a Washington firm that advises primarily Republican campaigns.
Joe Garofoli is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.