PARMA, Ohio—He was only the warm-up act, but Sen. Sherrod Brown was weaving an inspirational story that any politician would find hard to top: the tale of a state, an industry, and a little Chevy that could help the president overcome steep reelection odds.
“The Cruze is really the story of Ohio,” Brown told hundreds of sweat-drenched Democrats waiting for President Obama in a park here earlier this summer. “The engine comes from Defiance, Ohio,” he said, and there were cheers. “The steel comes from Cleveland, Ohio,” he continued, and there were louder cheers. “The transmission comes from Toledo, Ohio.” Still-louder cheers, as his voice continued to build. “The stamping’s done in Parma, Ohio! The sound system comes from Springboro, Ohio! The seats come from Warren, Ohio! And it’s put together by 5,000 workers on three shifts in Youngstown, Ohio!” Brown finished, setting off an eruption of whistles, shouts, and applause.
Brown’s riff never fails to ignite Democratic crowds, and in this case it set the table perfectly for the president. Ohio is at the top of the must-win list for both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, and it has more than 800,000 jobs directly or indirectly related to cars.
The auto bailout (or rescue, as Democrats like to call it) is not a panacea in an election season in which poll after poll shows Romney comfortably ahead among white voters without college degrees. Men in that group, in particular, are turning away from the president in droves. The recession has left many white, blue-collar voters brimming with anger and anxiety about lost jobs or homes, stagnant or falling wages, high gas prices, and the possibility of worse to come. Some never supported Obama. Some who did are impatient for an economic fix and ready to try something—or somebody—new.
“Obama’s not doing a very good job. It’s just time for someone new.”—Romney supporter Krista Preusser
But a different story is developing in some states that rely on the auto industry. Its revival is helping Obama hold his own with noncollege voters in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Combined with Romney’s inability so far to make the sale, that could make all the difference on Nov. 6.
Jim Hitsman, 62, a polka musician and retired mail carrier waiting with his wife and dog for the start of Parma’s Fourth of July parade, said he’ll vote for Obama. “He’s done some things that I don’t like. Some of the trade agreements, things like that,” he said.
But he added that Obama can’t please everyone. “He’s doing his best,” Hitsman said.
A NEW KIND OF COLLAR
Once upon a time in politics, blue-collar meant white, ethnic, working-class voters who held manufacturing jobs. In the 2008 primaries, these were the Hillary Rodham Clinton Democrats, descendants of the iconic Reagan Democrats, named for their defections to the GOP’s Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg elevated the profile, and the mythology, of the group with a classic 1985 study of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Mich., near Detroit. But the Great Recession and the decades of wage stagnation that preceded it are prompting Greenberg and others to reconsider their outdated definitions of blue-collar and working-class. Greenberg, coauthor of a new book called It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!, says the economic and cultural fault line now is between people who have a four-year college degree and people who do not. “I don’t draw a distinction anymore between middle-class and working-class,” he said. “College is what changes your opportunities.”
The noncollege contingent is on the ropes, he said, and that’s why they are deserting Obama. “These people know they are the heart of the problem. Nobody gets how much they carry the country and how much difficulty they’re in. They’re volatile,” Greenberg said. “They are in continuous ongoing revolt against the failure of the country to offer rising prospects and rising living standards for white working people. It’s not specific to Obama. There’s no evidence of them identifying with Romney. Obama is president at a time when these voters continue to be losing ground.”
Republican David Hill, a pollster and a political scientist, is also listening to focus groups through a postrecession filter. He says that a “sizable percentage of Republicans” who are self-employed or own a small business now feel poor. “They are kind of a new version of blue-collar for Republicans,” Hill said. “These are people who typically don’t have health insurance plans or, if they do, they tend to be very modest, like a major medical plan. They certainly don’t come with prescription-drug cards and the other accoutrements of public employees or a union-type industrial job. They will have some college but not have a college degree.”
They might own a metal-fabrication shop, replace automobile glass, or service air conditioners. They might have a small plumbing business and do some of the plumbing themselves. They drive a lot and resent the high price of gasoline. They also resent those they see as shielded from the recession, such as public employees. “They’re kind of feeling vulnerable in the face of all that,” Hill said.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.