Business Groups Shifting Election Focus

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:36pm

Joe Gibbs isn’t the only reason why Washington plans a return to the ground game this season.

One year after Congress banned corporations from contributing massive soft-money checks to political campaigns, several influential business leaders on K Street have decided that the best way to play in this year’s elections is to mobilize their employees to register and vote for pro-business candidates this November.

The new get-out-the-vote effort by businesses could be a major boost to President Bush and many Congressional GOP candidates who largely support industry issues.

The shift also reflects a back-to-basics decision by corporate America after a decade in which six-digit contributions to the national political parties fueled a pricey advertising war.

“It’s not about buying television anymore. It’s about getting out the vote,” said Gregory Casey, president of the Business-Industry PAC, or BIPAC, one of the organizations coordinating the effort.

To be sure, don’t expect to see much of a decline in political advertising on the television and radio this year. The presidential candidates alone will spend well more than $100 million on advertising this fall.

Meanwhile, some business groups, such as the pharmaceutical industry, will pay for their own advertising campaigns. Other companies plan to write large checks to newly created 527 committees that will back pro-business candidates.

But by and large, businesses plan to return their focus to educating, registering and getting their employees to vote for pro-industry candidates on Election Day.

“On the Republicans’ side and on the Democratic side, it’s going to be about who can do a better job of turning out their base,” said Bill Miller, a lobbyist in charge of the get-out-the-vote effort at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Begun around the time of the last presidential election, the business effort is poised to make its first real impact in this year’s elections.

Hundreds of businesses are on board with the plan, including the Boeing Co., ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Chevron, Proctor & Gamble, Intel and Georgia Pacific.

Meanwhile, a set of the most influential business lobbyists in Washington have thrown their weight behind it, including Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors; Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business; Michael Baroody of the National Association of Manufacturers; Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; John Castellani of the Business Roundtable; and Stephen Sandherr of the Associated General Contractors of America.

“I think business leaders have concluded that the better use of their resources is to mobilize their own kind,” said Van Dongen, who has close ties to the White House.

In all, the companies hope to reach out to more than 20 million employees in the 2004 election cycle, twice as many as they contacted in the 2002 election.

The campaign relies on an inexpensive, Internet-based system to allow business executives to contact their white-collar employees about the key issues in elections that will help business.

“You don’t tell them how to vote, but you say, ‘Here are the issues that are important to us,’ and you make sure they are registered and vote,” said BIPAC’s Casey, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms under then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“To the degree that Republicans vote more correctly on our issues, they will be the beneficiaries.”

Company Web sites, designed with the help of BIPAC and the Chamber of Commerce, also allow employees to find out information about how to register to vote and request absentee ballots if they are traveling on Election Day.

Census figures show that 19 million registered voters did not vote in the 2000 elections, 10 percent of whom were traveling.

“That wasn’t grandma on a cruise,” said Van Dongen. “When you think about it logically, a sizeable percentage of that 10 percent has to be business travelers” who probably would have voted Republican.

“If the business community can work that piece alone, it would make a substantial difference in turnout,” Van Dongen added.

Though the effort began in the 2000 election, the business campaign undoubtedly got a boost from Congress’ decision to ban soft-money donations to the Republican and Democratic parties.

The campaign finance law “has forced people to look around them and to think of new ways to be politically effective since they can’t write a soft-money check,” Casey said. “The wave of the future is that businesses are going to have to mobilize voters if they want to impact elections.”

Still, many Republican political consultants say the businesses are making a mistake.

The consultants believe that by favoring grassroots work over funding television advertisements, businesses will cede the air war to Democratic-leaning groups, such as labor unions, environmental groups and trial lawyers.

As a result, several Republicans have founded independent fundraising committees to help fund an air war.

But even some Republicans involved in the fundraising effort, such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, say that money spent on getting pro-Republican voters to the polls this November may be more important than flooding the airwaves with advertisements.

“You need to do both,” Norquist said. “But I think that dollar for dollar, get out the vote is going to be more important this time.”