Incumbents Better Take Note

06/01/2010 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rick Sloan President and CEO, Cooperative for Union Services and Products

Congress went home last Friday for a ten day recess. After much "talk, talk, talk" about jobs, no jobs bill emerged from Capitol Hill for President Barack Obama to sign. And no Act of Congress now can alter the indelible impression left with jobless voters.

The die is cast. For the 31 million Americans idled in this Gravest Recession, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately question has been answered: Not a damned thing.

Finally, congressional Democrats - and their Republican colleagues - have forged a bi-partisan alliance. Jobless voters despise them all. And their simmering anger at politicians in general and incumbents in particular is growing into an uncontrollable rage.

Are these political professionals worried? Apparently, not. How else can you explain their utter disdain for their unemployed and underemployed constituents?

Incumbents think that time is on their side, that November is a long way off. They think their war chests are more than adequate and can always be refilled. They think their other advantages - franked mail, automatic access to local news outlets, a litany of local pork projects, government funded constituent services, and gerrymandered districts - will protect them. And they think that working voters are their ace in the hole.

As morally reprehensible and cynical as that last thought may be, pitting jobless voters against working voters is not a novel strategy. "It's Morning in America" was a graphic way to ignore the millions of unemployed in 1984. And, from a purely mathematical standpoint, it makes some sense. With unemployment at 9.9 percent, ten times more Americans are working than are jobless.

Professional politicians really only care about who turns out on Election Day. If you are not registered to vote or you have a history of voting infrequently, you do not exist. In midterm elections, when the surge voters in presidential elections stay home, the pro's focus almost entirely on those they know are turning out. And they're convinced that the unemployed are less likely to vote than working voters.

In fact, the United States Census Bureau did a study that reinforces that conviction. Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2006 reported that 69 percent of the employed were registered to vote but only 53.9 percent of the unemployed were. It also reported that 70 percent of working voters turned out while only 58 percent of jobless voters did.

There's only one problem with relying on the Census Bureau's Voting and Registration study. It focused on the 2006 midterm elections when the total unemployed was 6.2 million, the unemployment rate was 4.6 percent and only 1.7 million of the unemployed voted.

Today, the official unemployment rate is 9.9 percent - more than 200 percent higher than in 2006. The official number of unemployed is 15 million - nearly two and one half times what it was in 2006. And incumbents know that those "official" numbers are off by a country mile.

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 30 million Americans who are unemployed, who work part-time involuntarily or who have looked for a job in the past year but could not find one. That's five times the number of unemployed in the Census Bureau study.

Moreover, it would be foolhardy to apply the Census Bureau's 53 percent registration figure or that 58 percent turnout number from 2006. The jobless are not living in an era of full employment. They are caught in the Gravest Recession since the Great Depression.

Today's jobless have college degrees, have (or had) home mortgages, and have years of experience in the workforce. Many held management positions. Most were highly skilled. And they are far more likely to have registered to vote, particularly given the surge in voter registration during the 2008 presidential campaign, than the structurally unemployed of 2006. So, registration levels should be the same for jobless and working voters.

Incumbents might argue that the hopelessness and lower self-esteem associated with long-term unemployment depresses turnout. They are whistling past the graveyard. The jobless have far more reason now to go vote than working voters do. Their rage is bipartisan and they know who has screwed them over.

First in Pennsylvania and now in South Carolina, Ur Union of Unemployed (UCubed) purchased cable TV spots aimed at the jobless. Imagery of a screw being driven as the faces of unemployed workers flash on the screen is compelling. The ad ends with the announcer saying, "Now it's our turn to turn the screws. With our votes we can put America back to work."

Where it ran in Pennsylvania, the UCubed ad helped boost turnout. York, Dauphin and Lancaster counties saw voter turnout between 17 and 22 percent higher than in the last contested midterm primary. Where it did not run - for example, in Erie, Westmoreland and Montgomery counties - turn out was down 8 to 13 percent from the 2002 contest between Ed Rendell and Bob Casey. And it only took 1,000 spots in Pennsylvania to disprove the idea that the jobless are going to sit out this election.

In South Carolina, the "official" unemployment rate was 12.2 percent in March. Four counties had "official" rates in excess of 19 percent. And yet, discussion about jobs has ceased as prurient rumors run rampant in the Palmetto State.

Perhaps, the UCubed ad can persuade working voters and jobless voters alike who really is getting screwed over. If so, incumbents better take note. Their careers, just like their affairs, will take a back seat to what really matters this year: getting Americans back to work.

Rick Sloan is Director of Communications of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and Acting Executive Director of "Ur Union of Unemployed". Ur Union of Unemployed, or UCubed, is a community service project of the IAM that offers the unemployed a way to work together to help end the Great Recession of 2007.