NEENAH, Wis. — When Mike Pyne and other union foot soldiers knock on doors to promote Senator Barack Obama, they often confront a tricky challenge: how to persuade union members to vote on the basis of their wallets rather than on issues like abortion, gun rights and race.
In battleground states like this one, union voters could be vital to the outcome of the election, and the labor movement has mounted a huge push on behalf of Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, built largely around the message that with unemployment rising, the financial system reeling and gasoline and food prices soaring, the nation cannot afford to have another Republican in the White House.
The labor effort appears to be making headway. Social issues have moved to the background while the economy is foremost in the minds of many voters, and Mr. Obama appears to be benefiting politically. People like Tom Crooks, an electrician at a paper company’s research center, are telling union canvassers that they are “definitely leaning” toward Mr. Obama because they are worried about their financial well-being.
Four years ago, it was not so, Mr. Crooks said. He voted for President Bush, partly because guns were a significant issue for him. (Helped by labor support, John Kerry won Wisconsin by less than one-half of 1 percent of the votes.)
“But this year the economy is very important,” said Mr. Crooks, an Air Force veteran. “My wife is out of work. My son has a job with no medical. My 401(k) is going down.”
His wife’s telemarketing job was outsourced to the Philippines. “A lot of jobs are being lost to foreign countries,” Mr. Crooks said, adding that he disliked the economic ideas of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee. “I think he’s just out of touch.”
Yet union canvassers are also confronting an unprecedented factor in this election — Mr. Obama’s race — making the effects of their door-to-door appeals less predictable.
MacDavis Slade, a political activist with the painters’ union, said that was why “some people are having a hard time seeing things for what they are or hearing what he has to say.”
“I think race is playing a major part,” Mr. Slade said. “I think that’s why some people say, ‘Isn’t he a Muslim?’ ”
Other union leaders said that some members had acknowledged opposing Mr. Obama because he is black, and that canvassers had heard racial slurs against him.
To increase Mr. Obama’s chances of winning, labor’s field marshals have sought to make sure that canvassers, when distributing fliers and visiting union members, focus on economic issues, like Mr. Obama’s calls for cutting taxes on the middle class and repealing tax breaks for companies that invest overseas. The canvassers also emphasize protecting Social Security, problems with trade agreements and the need for change.
“We’ve lost something like 600,000 jobs so far this year,” said Anthony Rainey, president of U.A.W. Local 469, which represents workers at Master Lock in Milwaukee.
Mr. Rainey said his wife had warned him that Mr. Obama would lose if voters were not able to distinguish his economic policies from Mr. McCain’s. “There hasn’t been anything on the issues and it’s going to be crunch time,” Mr. Rainey said, “and people have to understand where these presidential candidates stand on economic issues.”
But many union members have a history of basing their votes on noneconomic issues, giving Mr. McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, a shot at winning their support. Mr. Pyne, who knocks on doors wearing a Steelworkers for Obama T-shirt, witnessed that firsthand while visiting Scott Siegel, a union plumber, and his wife, Amy.
“We basically vote pro-life,” said Ms. Siegel, a mother of five. “As a ‘little person,’ I don’t feel that any of these candidates have our best interests in mind. So if there’s a specific thing that sways our vote, it would be abortion.”
Union strategists say that if Mr. Obama is to win Michigan, Wisconsin and other Midwestern swing states, he will probably need a hefty margin of victory among union households there, because they expect that a majority of voters in those states who are not from union households will vote for Mr. McCain. Two weekends ago, Mr. Pyne was one of 200 union activists who knocked on some 10,000 doors throughout Wisconsin, in Waukesha, Eau Claire, Madison, Cudahy, Appleton and other communities. It is all part of labor’s ground game to focus on three million union voters in 17 swing states, with the emphasis on getting out the vote and moving undecided voters into the Obama column, in part through “member-to-member visits.”
“Union voters are going to decide this election,” Doug Burnett, the Wisconsin political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told union canvassers at a training session on a recent Saturday morning at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton. “We were the force that made the 2004 election so close, and we will be the force that wins this election. Without union members we would have lost Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2004.”
The union canvassers said that they were up against formidable obstacles, but that the economic slowdown and financial crisis were making a difference.
“In 2000, after eight years of a good economy and eight years of raises and not having to go to war, it was easy to focus on wedge issues,” said the deputy political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Mike Podhorzer. “It is less easy now. Today it’s an entirely different ballgame.”
In a region known as Paper Valley — which includes Neenah and Appleton — the shutdown this month of the 600-employee NewPage paper mill in Kimberly has pushed trade to the top of some voters’ concerns.
“Abortion is an important subject,” said Mike Rosselle, a FedEx driver who supports Mr. Obama, “but with this election, I feel that abortion is not as big because of what has happened with the war and the economy.”
Still, Mr. Obama’s race has complicated labor’s efforts. When canvassers knock on doors, some voters do not acknowledge race explicitly, said Mr. Rainey, the U.A.W. leader. “The main reason you get is, ‘I don’t trust him because I don’t know him.’ ”
Karen Ackerman, political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said: “We’re very conscious of the fact that many voters have never voted for an African-American for any office. For some voters, including union voters, particularly older voters, there is a reluctance.”
Ms. Ackerman said Mr. Obama was also new to the political scene, so people have not had time to get used to him. “We are trying to peel away what obstacles people have, union member by union member,” she said.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. says its nationwide campaign effort will involve knocking on 10 million doors, making 70 million phone calls, distributing 20 million leaflets and 25 million pieces of mail, and sending out more than four million e-mail messages. The nation’s unions talk of spending more than $300 million in the campaign, including $85 million by the Service Employees International Union.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, said he did not think labor’s efforts would be enough to win the state.
“Democrats here are not New York- or California-type Democrats,” Mr. Priebus said. “These labor Democrats are conservative people to begin with, and John McCain is the perfect candidate to put up in a state like Wisconsin because he has this independent streak and is a maverick Republican.”
Mr. Obama, he said, is not their kind of candidate.
“I don’t think race is an issue at all,” Mr. Priebus said. “A bigger problem is that Barack Obama has a sort of show pony style. The speeches and the classic double speak and being a great orator, that kind of thing doesn’t play well in Wisconsin.”
But for many union members, Mr. Obama’s promise to bring economic change trumps all other issues. “I think a black person can run the country as well as a white person can,” said Leona Franzen, a sales representative for L’Oreal. She complained that her family was struggling with its home and car payments.
Leone Brickler, a “coater” at the Kaukauna Cheese factory — she puts the nuts on cheese balls — said she supported Mr. Obama because of his plans to revamp health care.
“I think Obama will do good if he is given a chance,” Ms. Brickler told two canvassers from Unite Here, a union of hotel, restaurant and apparel workers. “I hear people say he’s all for the black people, but I think he will do what’s right for the Chinese, the whites, the Hispanics, for everyone.”
Ms. Brickler told the canvassers that her husband, however, remained undecided, ever since his preferred candidate, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, withdrew from the Democratic race.
That prompted one of the canvassers, Josh Smith, to suggest that union campaigners should knock on the Bricklers’ door another day to try persuading her husband.