It might not seem so, but the national teacher unions are employing the scientific method when it comes to endorsing candidates for various positions in the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the scientific method they use is trial-and-error.
The trouble began in October 2007 when the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, months before the first primaries or caucuses. The National Education Association had the opposite problem: it was deadlocked between Clinton and Barack Obama, and failed to endorse until the nomination was already decided.
AFT endorsed Clinton again in July 2015, while NEA leaders manipulated the union’s endorsement process to recommend her in October 2015. The goals were to unify the party, gain early influence within the Clinton campaign, and positively affect down-ballot races.
It’s easy to second-guess these decisions in hindsight, but one must also confront the fact that they failed in all respects.
The next dilemma to solve was to identify the person to lead the Democratic National Committee out of the wilderness. The two front-runners were Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Ellison was considered to be the voice of the Sanders wing of the party, while Perez was thought to be the establishment choice.
Neither union has an endorsement process for party chair, but both NEA president Lily Eskelsen García and AFT president Randi Weingarten took it upon themselves to make personal endorsements. Chagrined over previous decisions or not, they both chose Ellison.
The problem then is not an incorrect way of choosing candidates; it is identifying the people who will choose the winner and effectively influencing them to your point of view.
The 2016 presidential election was decided by a relative handful of voters – many of them from union households – in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Why couldn’t NEA and AFT swing those voters, or at least increase turnout among Clinton supporters?
The unions boasted of their monumental effort to deny Betsy DeVos confirmation as Secretary of Education, but could not identify, never mind sway, one or two Republican senators who might have gone their way.
The DNC electorate consisted entirely of 447 members. Why endorse at all unless you feel you have some influence over others?
Union setbacks in the wider political world can be blamed on the actions of their opponents, in places like Kentucky, Missouri and Iowa. To what are we to attribute union setbacks within the Democratic Party?
NEA and AFT perform better with core education and funding issues than with candidates or a broader agenda. Maybe it’s time to concentrate fire on targets you can hit.