The Corner

The one and only.

Who’s the Biggest ‘Outside Group’ in the 2012 Elections? Big Labor


With so much attention paid to super PACs these days, folks can forget that the biggest “outside group” spenders in the 2012 elections aren’t oil and gas companies, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, or hedge funds. No, as reported by the Associated Press, the biggest spender in the 2012 elections will likely be Big Labor. According to AP, unions will spend “more than $400 million to help re-elect President Barack Obama and lift Democrats this election year.”

Many roll their eyes and ask: How can Big Labor ever spend more than Big Business?

The fact is, since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt, unions have consistently dominated the outside-spending wars, acting as the de facto grassroots infrastructure of the Democratic party. The last two election cycles were no exception:

— According to the New York Times, Big Labor spent nearly $450 million in the 2008 elections electing Obama and the Democrats.

● According to the Wall Street Journal, three of the top five spending political groups in the 2010 midterms were labor unions.

● According to the AP, one union alone, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, spent $93 million on the 2010 elections.

This isn’t often reported in the mainstream media — mainly because labor unions don’t disclose much of what they do to the FEC. and Politifact, groups often cited by major news organizations on campaign-finance issues, only measure political spending in terms of the TV and radio ads that are reported to the FEC. This totally discounts the bread and butter of union efforts: canvassing, phone banks, and some direct mail. Even AP says, “Not all union expenditures on political action are publicly disclosed, so some numbers are based on self-reporting.”

So how is it possible that Big Labor can spend more in campaigns and elections than Big Business? Let’s analogize in Cold War terms.

Throughout the Cold War, America and the free, capitalist West were far richer than the USSR and Soviet Bloc countries. How, then, did it make sense that the world was split militarily between two superpowers when one was so plainly an economic dwarf?

The reason is that while the West spent a nominal amount of its GDP on militarization, the Commies spent 25 to 40 percent of GDP or more on guns. They were completely militarized. We were not. (President Reagan of course changed this . . . but we’ll save that for a later post.)

It’s the same model with Big Labor and Big Business. The largest American companies today spend incredibly small amounts on advocacy relative to their bottom lines — by some estimates, less than two one-hundredths of 1 percent of profits. And the vast majority of those funds are usually spent on lobbying, not on campaigns and elections. Meanwhile, their union counterparts are completely militarized, spending perhaps 50 percent of their biennial budgets on campaigns and elections.

Additionally, the limited amount Big Business does spend through traditional PACs goes to incumbents of all stripes and is thus split between parties. According to data from, in the 2010 elections traditional PACs gave $238,450,722 to Democrats and $181,565,844 to Republicans — a 57 to 43 percent split favoring Democrats.

Unions spent more than any other outside groups in 2008 and 2010, and will likely spend more than any group in 2012. Two unions alone, AFSCME and SEIU, plan to spend at least $185 million electing Obama in 2012. Big Labor is also the single biggest donor to Obama’s super PAC. And while Big Business typically splits its political resources between the two parties, Big Labor exclusively benefits the Democrats. Their efforts may not be as visible on TV, but they are spending big money on behalf of Democrats — most of which is not publicly disclosed. Center-right groups like American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Action Network — often demonized by the media — can only hope to balance out what the Left has been doing through Big Labor for nearly a century.

— Jonathan Collegio is communications director for American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review