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AFL-CIO To Counteract Negative TV Ads With New Social Approach

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WASHINGTON -- To counteract the influx of spending by Republican-allied super PACs, the AFL-CIO is stepping up its ground game for the 2012 elections.

Its strategy is to implement a new campaign ad strategy while still using more traditional, grassroots methods. It says it will focus on how person-to-person communication can push back on the conservative-heavy attack ads dominating local television.

Labor unions argue that Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-Wis.) recent victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) in the Wisconsin recall election served as a prime example of money defeating democracy. The resulting challenge for activists is to prevent a similar occurrence from transpiring on a national scale this November, in what has already been branded as the most expensive election in American history.

“Barrett was outspent by a margin that if that happens on a national scale, this is really not a democracy anymore,” Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director, said in a press briefing at the union's Washington, D.C. headquarters on Wednesday. “We expect that candidates we support will be outspent, but if they're outspent 7-1 across the board in November, then this is not the America of the last 200 years.”

Part of the AFL-CIO’s new approach is engaging its activists with local consumers who are affected by negative television ads. The labor federation says that after a series of tests, it has concluded that voters who discussed negative ads with their peers, or a credible source on politics, were more likely to be skeptical of their content. Those who did not discuss the ads appeared to take them more at face value. The organization aims to fuel those conversations to create a more aware electorate.

“Starting in Ohio and going onto Wisconsin, we've been working to perfect and improve a different kind of ground game to address the challenges raised by the television advantage that the Republicans are going to have,” Podhorzer said. “What is innovative, and what really addresses the television advantage, is adding quality to quantity in the conversation, so that the ground game goes from being thought of as these top-down calling centers or marches through neighborhoods to what politics should be, which is people talking to their friends about politics -- people talking to people who they have credibility with about politics.”

The AFL-CIO will continue to utilize traditional grassroots efforts, such as phone banks and door-to-door canvassing, but hopes its new emphasis on enhancing dialogue will help activists develop their own response to negative ads that they can share within their communities. This, according to the federation, will be more potent than simply handing volunteers a script and assigning them to mostly unknown targets.

“Our deeper understanding of the power of social networks to counteract TV ads helps us empower our grassroots activists to engage in much deeper grassroots conversations than ever before,” Podhorzer told The Huffington Post in an email.

Although the AFL-CIO launched its own super PAC, Workers’ Voice, last year, its spending has been focused on organizing digital tools -- mainly email and social media -- to connect to voters, as opposed to TV ads. The nation's largest labor-affiliated super PAC, Workers' Voice had has raised $5.1 million as of April.

The labor group, which represents 57 unions and about 12 million workers, first announced its massive ground operation in March. At the time, the AFL-CIO said it planned to enlist as many as 400,000 of its members for a grassroots effort that would persuade voters to support President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates at the federal, state and local levels.

“Our activists will be facing an unprecedented challenge as the previous waves of dishonest right wing TV ads become a tsunami of lies, but working people will have the tools to engage in the necessary pushback,” Podhorzer wrote in an email. “It’s a rigged contest instead of the fair fight we’d win easily, but it’s a fight we can and must win.”

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