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Campaign contributions highlight a shift in organized labor strategy


Vice President Joe Biden recently noted that Democrats "haven't spoken enough" to working-class voters. He warned that failing to communicate with these voters was alienating a core portion of the Democratic Party's traditional base.

Biden's comments highlight one of this election's core themes: persistent debate over the direction of working-class voter support. Nate Silver, for example, argued that Trump's working-class support is largely a myth. However, a recent Gallup study showed a more complex picture. Working-class loyalties are, at best, divided.

In spite of the attention this issue receives, relatively little discussion takes campaign contributions into account. Yet when we look at where money is going so far this year — and at how much is being donated — we see that Biden might be right to caution his party. Donations to Democrats are down, while Republicans are enjoying a small but significant increase. These patterns may suggest an emerging shift in labor donor priorities.

Organized labor provides the most revealing example. Money from labor to Democrats is down significantly since 2012 (and since 2008). According to Center for Responsive Politics ( data, total labor donations to Democrats have declined roughly 35 percent as compared with 2012 levels. There is still time before the election. However, a windfall in giving before November would be required to make up the $21 million gap between current levels and 2012.

This decline is not driven solely by one industry. The data follows the same pattern when looking at subcategories of labor donors. Industrial, public sector, and trade unions are all giving at least 30 percent less money to Democrats in 2016. (Teachers unions stand out as the main exception.)

Moreover, expenditures that CPR refers to as "outside spending" have also declined across most labor categories. In the aggregate, total labor expenditures independent from a campaign committee are down $10 million (14 percent) for Democrats.

One possible explanation for declining donations is falling union membership. Shrinking unions might simply have less money to give. But this wouldn't explain why contributions directed to Republicans are steady — and in some cases up slightly — from 2012.

Overall, Republican candidates have already matched the total contributions they received from labor in 2012. And since Democrats are now receiving less money, the Republican Party's share of total labor contributions has nearly doubled, from 9 percent to 15.

Money from specific unions follows these patterns. The AFL-CIO publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, yet almost half of its donations to candidates and parties have gone to Republicans. In 2012, Republicans received only 18 percent of the AFL-CIO's total contributions. The same pattern holds for other top 10 donors. The share of money Republicans receive from the Carpenters & Joiners, Laborers, and Plumbers/Pipefitters unions have all doubled.

It's true that the total volume of money to Republicans remains relatively small. The $7 million Republicans received thus far is dwarfed by the $40 million enjoyed by Democrats. But comparing these totals misses the point. Since less money is being spent overall, it's telling that Republican donations remain steady. Organized labor isn't just donating less money across the board. These groups are fundamentally reallocating their funds, increasing the share of money they give to Republicans.

Possible explanations for these patterns include a growing sense of economic disenfranchisement among working-class voters. Data also suggests race plays an important role. Public opinion data offered by PRRI/Brookings and Gallup reports provide some evidence for both of these arguments.

These explanations tend to focus too narrowly on Trump and whether he has unique appeal for (white) working-class voters. But Trump receives essentially no money from labor. If anything, the contributions data suggests a more fundamental shift in working-class attitudes.

Of course, it's important to recognize the growing role of outside money in recent campaigns. There is less given directly to parties and candidates in general. But conservative PACs currently hold eight of the top 10 positions in total spending. In 2012, the split was six conservative and four liberal.

To be sure, any movement of labor from Democrat to Republican is still an evolving process, and it is far from universal. Most major organized labor voices — including the heads of unions like the AFL-CIO — still publicly support the Democratic Party and endorse Clinton. But campaign contributions lend validity to Biden's cautionary comments. Democrats are receiving significantly lower volumes — and lower shares — of the limited supply of organized labor donations.

Jeffrey Kucik is an assistant professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at City College of New York.

Ashley Moraguez is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Asheville.