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.