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.
Whatever label you choose—working-class, blue-collar, noncollege—neither Obama nor Romney is a natural fit for these voters. Both are Ivy Leaguers who like their privacy. One is black; the other is Mormon. Both are lawyers. Neither is a glad-hander. Obama’s fatherless upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia was the antithesis of the suburban, white-bread, Leave It to Beaver idyll. Romney’s creatively destructive venture-capitalist career was about as far as you can get from the Main Street mom-and-pop businesses that both parties lionize as pillars of their communities and the national economy. Obama once famously described working-class rural voters, the ones who preferred his 2008 primary opponent Clinton, as “clinging” to guns and religion in insecure times. Romney famously challenged a rival to a $10,000 bet—fully one-third the annual salary of some voters who tell Greenberg they consider themselves middle class.
Along the Parma parade route, Ryan Smallwood, 31, captured the dilemma. Is Obama in trouble in Ohio? “Hopefully,” said Smallwood, who works for a company that makes industrial water systems. Romney might be better, he added, but “I don’t know if he’s going to be able to manage everything … coming from all the money he’s had. He worries me, too.” A tall man with tattoos and a shaved head, Smallwood put his odds of voting at 50-50. “If Romney doesn’t start impressing me, I’m not going to vote,” he said.
In fact, neither candidate is empty-handed as he pursues support from these voters.
Obama stands on the right side of an empathy gap for reasons that include his background and his policies. Romney wins higher marks in polls on economic expertise, but Obama bests him on likability, on who cares more about the problems of everyday Americans, and on who would better protect the middle class. The president often talks about his past struggle to repay student loans, his plan to raise taxes on the rich, and his risky decision to try to save domestic car production. “When some were saying, ‘Let’s let Detroit go bankrupt,’ I said, ‘Let’s bet on the American worker,’ ” he reminded those at his rally here, a jibe at Romney that drew cheers and applause.
Wendy Pitts, a United Auto Workers member who introduced Obama, vividly evoked the mood in the area in late 2008. “We were all scared, and the sense of fear was overwhelming,” she recalled. “What would happen to our community and our country if the industry fell?”
In fact, northern Ohioans had already witnessed the devastating consequences of downsizing, seven years ago and 30 miles down the road in Lorain. Workers there reminisce about a time not so very long ago, in the 1970s, when there were more jobs than people, when it was just a question of where you wanted to work. But Ford shuttered a plant that employed 1,200 people in 2005, draining the city of more than $2 million in income taxes, according to its current mayor, Chase Ritenauer.
That was the same year the only downtown hotel, the Spitzer Plaza, closed its doors. Businesses began to leave. Then, in the 2008 collapse, Republic Steel shut down its blast furnace, and another 700 jobs vanished. Now vacant storefronts pock every block of Broadway. Lorain’s century-old post office building with fluted classical columns, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sports gaudy yellow banners advertising “CASH FOR GOLD” and “WE BUY GOLD & DIAMONDS.”
There are some signs of revival on the outskirts of downtown, in the miles of Republic Steel and United States Steel works—and the businesses that support them—along 28th Street, generated in part by the resurgence of the auto industry. Republic recently chose Lorain over Matamoros, Mexico, to build an electric furnace, and that will bring 449 new jobs. Local and state governments offered incentives, and the United Steel Workers made concessions. “They gave up some things and settled the contract so that this deal could occur,” Ritenauer said of the union. “We’re in a different world now in many ways. Most people realize that.”
At least 75 of Ohio’s 88 counties manufacture auto parts, according to Brown. Democrats say, and Politifact Ohio has documented, that thousands of direct auto jobs have been created since George W. Bush began the bailout in December 2008, and thousands more have been saved. Add to those numbers the indirect economic impact of an industry that is thriving rather than dying.
But that argument doesn’t sway voters—even some who hold auto jobs—who hate the idea of bailouts. One of them is a 52-year-old Parma woman who makes parts at a General Motors stamping plant and who refused to give her name because, she said, her opinions would anger the union members she works with at GM. Sitting in a lawn chair along the parade route, she said she voted for Clinton in the 2008 primaries and John McCain in the general election, and will vote for Romney this fall because “we are headed in the wrong direction” on the economy and “socialized” health care. “The bailout is not how our society is supposed to work. It’s supposed to fail and then rebuild if that’s what the economy calls for,” she said. If GM were to fail, she said, she would just get a different kind of job.
Rich Juby, 68, was listening from his own lawn chair next to hers. “I disagree about the cars. I don’t know if she would have had a job without the bailout,” said Juby, who worked in the assembly department of a manufacturing company for 42 years. He said he will vote for Obama. “Bush left Obama with a serious problem that’s taken him some time to straighten out,” he said. But Juby added, “The people I know are going with Romney. They figured they’ve done enough Obama; he’d dig us a bigger hole. All the guys have had it with Obama.”
IN ROMNEY’S QUIVER
Romney’s record, particularly questions about how involved he was or wasn’t when Bain Capital was investing in companies that shifted jobs overseas, is a drag on his candidacy in Rust Belt areas that have felt the pain of outsourcing and are still smarting. Parma even has a store, opened a year ago by two Cleveland-area cousins, called US Mart. The motto is “All products made in America.”
Still, Romney has an aggressive pro-business, anti-regulation message that appeals to some swing voters frustrated by the jobs picture. Some think that business is “the enemy,” the GOP candidate recently told business owners in Costa Mesa, Calif., but “I see you as the good guys.” Romney also wins points from some voters because of his conservative stands on social issues. And then there’s his trump card: He’s not Obama.
Krista Preusser, 41, of Canton, a cook in a school cafeteria, touched on much of that in describing her regret at voting for Obama in 2008 (“like an idiot!”) and her probable vote for Romney this fall. “Obama’s not doing a very good job. It’s just time for someone new,” she said before the start of a fireworks display in Canton. “I understand he didn’t really have a fair shake going in. But this whole Obamacare thing is going to be a nightmare. That and the [Keystone XL oil] pipeline—why did he vote that down?”
She added approvingly, “Mitt Romney says he’s about creating jobs. That pipeline is one of the first things he’s going to do.”
Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act—will make it easier for people with low incomes and preexisting conditions to get health coverage. It’s the main reason Barb Smith of Canton is enthusiastic about Obama. “I’m a fan simply because I don’t have insurance. I can’t pay,” said Smith, 59, a licensed practical nurse who provides home care when her migraines, fibromyalgia, and cervical stenosis allow her to work. “I can’t work much,” Smith said. “My husband is 65 and a trucker. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to do that.”
Some Obama leaners aren’t particularly excited about voting for him, but they like Romney less. James Martin, 52, manager of a grocery store in Canton, said he’ll probably vote for Obama, but “I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about it. I don’t have a whole lot of use for Romney. He’s into government for the upper class.”
Dan Strohl, 57, of Canton, whose job selling rebar was affected by the construction downturn, voted for Obama in 2008 and is “inclined” to vote for him again. He said that Romney’s agenda, topped by his emphatic opposition to the new health law, seems aimed at “getting Obama out; not helping the country. But, I have to say, we had a lot of hopes for Obama, but he’s been a disappointment. He’s put us in a lot of debt.”
Romney and his party are hoping to peel off noncollege voters in eastern and southeastern Ohio—blue-collar, Democratic areas—by homing in on the Obama administration’s new limits on emissions from coal plants and regulations that conservatives say are causing layoffs. Mike Carey, chairman of the Ohio Coal Association, says that the issue has the broader potential to motivate anyone who pays a monthly utility bill. “People are starting to realize: You take coal out of the mix, electric rates go up,” he said.
Ohio gave both campaigns reason for hope last year with ballot initiatives on health care and collective bargaining. The state voted 66 percent to 34 percent to reject the federal health law’s requirement that most people buy insurance. But it also voted 62 percent to 38 percent to reject conservative Gov. John Kasich’s law gutting the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
Scott Jennings, Romney’s Ohio campaign director, said the referendum on the insurance mandate is pivotal because “it most directly applies to the presidential campaign. It’s most closely tied to Barack Obama’s first term in office.” The mandate was particularly unpopular in working-class counties that traditionally vote Democratic, he said. “It’s fertile ground for us.”
Aaron Pickrell, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign in Ohio, countered that the collective-bargaining fight gave cops, firefighters, teachers, and other public employees, including some conservatives, “a real stark reminder” of the differences between Obama and Romney, who supported the Kasich law. “It’s very personal to them,” Pickrell said.
Regardless of any appeal the president’s campaign makes, there’s a rock-solid wall of noncollege voters, most of them men, who have written Obama off. Typical is Tony McCauley, 35, of Canton, a ladle man who pours steel in the molten metal department of a mill. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m not voting for Obama,” he said. Why? “Obama is just mostly a talker. He’s talking and buffaloing his way through. He’s not really doing anything for the people.”
Obama doesn’t need the votes of many white, noncollege voters to win another term; just 35 percent or so would do it. Still, winning with a tiny share of them, and possibly a record low among noncollege men, would be a disturbing election footnote. But for the president, it would beat the alternative.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.