Making the Message Count

Interest Groups Work To Get Their Issues Onto Campaign Trail

Posted February 1, 2008 at 6:33pm

With Super Tuesday practically a countrywide contest, Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organizations are mobilizing their efforts in the 24 primary and caucus states this week with an eye toward raising the profile of their pet issues heading into the general election.

The hand-to-hand retail politics of the earliest primary states has given way to more expansive grass-roots efforts, advertising campaigns, bus tours and press gimmicks all aimed at getting candidates’ and voters’ attention on a host of issues and causes: health care, education and taxes, among others.

In one case, Divided We Fail — a health care-focused effort of the Business Roundtable, the Service Employees International Union and seniors lobby AARP — is stepping up its grass-roots work in the 24 Super Tuesday

states, AARP spokesman Drew Nannis wrote in an e-mail. The group has activated its volunteers at campaign events, with some perched on busy street corners waving signs during the morning and evening rush hours and “bird-dogging” candidates and their surrogates at rallies and events.

“Just in the last 24 hours, DWF volunteers were at events with Sens. Clinton and Obama in Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri,” Nannis said late last week. “Additionally, we had volunteers with Sen. McCain and Gov. Romney in California.”

On Super Tuesday, Divided We Fail volunteers will be stationed at key precincts — for example, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) polling place.

“We see February 5th as an opportunity to transition into our general election efforts with a significant presence that cannot be ignored,” Nannis added.

The small-business lobby, National Federation of Independent Business, is trying to win “earned media” — specific mentions in news stories and on radio shows in the Super Tuesday states, said the group’s national media director, Mike Diegel. “Here are issues — health care and tax relief — that are important to our members,” he said. “Our guy in Tennessee is doing some radio.”

NFIB also is helping its membership register to vote and is providing information on absentee voting. That will continue through to Election Day.

The American Cancer Society is out in the states working to get information to primary voters about cancer policies. As the primaries fold into the general election, this spring the group’s lobbying arm will launch a campaign-style bus tour called the “Fight Back Express” that will cruise through all the lower 48 states and will continue on the road through Election Day.

“We’re trying to create a national movement among people touched by cancer, to really make sure candidates understand there’s a lot more that could be done right now to save lives,” said Daniel Smith, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Though it will not endorse specific candidates, the group is also working on a voter guide. “The bus is a great, literally, vehicle to get our message out,” Smith added. “As we get closer to the election, we plan to do voter mobilization with our folks who care about cancer.”

The cancer group’s campaign bus won’t be the only ride out there. In the last election cycle, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dispatched a bus across the nation to mobilize business-minded voters, and the chamber’s political director, Bill Miller, said it will most likely ride again this year. In addition, he said, when it comes to specific issues, “our energy people, our trade people, our health care people are constantly communicating about trying to make sure candidates have an appreciation and awareness of the issues that are important to business.”

Some groups say they are so far unhappy with the lack of attention any of the presidential candidates are paying to their issues.

Phil Bond, president and chief executive of the Information Technology Association of America, said his group is reaching out privately to its members in advance of the elections on Super Tuesday and will continue to meet with representatives from the campaigns of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as well as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), depending on who is left in the race after tomorrow. (The group had met with officials from the now-defunct campaign of former Sen. John Edwards [D-N.C.].)

“We’re trying to do our own thorough assessment and give our members a read on what they can look for and expect from different candidates,” Bond said.

The group is focusing on where the candidates stand on such issues as intellectual property, competitiveness, international trade, Internet policy and procurement.

“There is some disappointment that a discussion about how America competes in the information age has not been more prominent in the campaigns,” Bond said. “It is a challenge for us. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had meetings set up [with the campaigns]. We still believe there’s time. We’ll continue to engage the campaigns.”

On the eve of Super Tuesday, unions, too, already are ramping up for the general election.

“We’re in the process now of putting a program together that will be very big, very aggressive,” said Karen Ackerman, political director for the AFL-CIO. “It will set up a structure by which we can reach every [union] member and their family.”

Karen White, director of campaigns and elections at the National Education Association, said her organization is already starting to gear up for the general election. NEA, she added, will spend a record $50 million in more than 20 battleground states in the presidential race as well as in Congressional districts. “This will be the largest yet,” she said.