America’s Rust Belt, its political loyalties always fickle, came through on Tuesday night for Barack Obama.
With unemployment nationally at 7.9 percent, Obama wasn’t supposed to be able to win reelection on the strength of his economic performance (no president since FDR has done it with the jobless rate over 7.2 percent). But one of the big stories of the 2012 presidential election emerged from critical pockets of voters in battleground states who were doing better economically than the rest of the country as a whole. And that was especially true in the industrial Midwest, where voters overwhelmingly favored Obama’s 2009 auto-industry bailout.
Indeed, the first grim sign for Mitt Romney that election night wasn’t going his way came early Tuesday evening when the self-described “car guy” appeared to be lagging in key Midwestern industrial states most dependent on the auto industry. These included Ohio, where the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, and Wisconsin, where it is 7.3 percent.
Following their near-collapse, the U.S. auto companies have rebounded substantially, adding some 250,000 jobs.
Romney, meanwhile, never found his footing in those blue-collar states. Beginning during the GOP primaries, when he awkwardly sought to identify with the blue-collar base by noting that his wife “drives a coupla Cadillacs,” Romney was bedeviled not only by his aloof, patrician image, but by his infamous 2008 op-ed in The New York Times, headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” outlining his opposition to government support for the collapsing industry.
Romney later sought to argue that he had only favored a “managed bankruptcy” that depended on private financing, but voters in the Big Three heartland apparently remembered that private credit was not available in those years; only government money was.
The Republican nominee made yet another serious misstep in the final days of the election when his campaign aired two ads that wrongly suggested that General Motors and Chrysler were planning to send jobs to China at the expense of U.S. workers. The ads provoked embarrassing rebuttals from executives of both companies.
In the end, while Romney commanded large majorities of white male voters in much of the country, the popularity of the auto bailout allowed Obama to hold on to a few more of them and ultimately to win Ohio.