The issue could be more resonant in November. Organized labor’s political clout has waned along with its declining membership, but unions remain a significant force in Michigan and other key Rust Belt battlegrounds like Ohio and Wisconsin. In the general election, union households cast about one-third of Michigan’s ballots. Obama got 67 percent of their votes, but McCain still captured 31 percent.
The UAW’s King on Friday predicted that Obama’s share could rise in 2012 if he’s paired against Romney. “A lot of our members, who sometimes are independents, are not going to vote for someone who didn’t support us,” he said. Michigan’s labor movement may also attempt to encourage turnout by qualifying a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to bar right-to-work legislation.
Nick Singelis, who described himself as a conservative critical of Obama, left Romney’s economic speech on Friday shaking his head over the candidate’s tough language on labor. “Whoever is his communication director needs some better words,” said Singelis, the chief of staff for a hospital chain, as he filed off of the football field on which the candidate spoke. “You say ‘right-to-work’ in Michigan, you turn off 50 to 60 percent of the state. You don’t say that. You don’t say that in a restaurant.”
Perhaps an even greater threat for Romney in Michigan is that his feud with the UAW will keep alive his opposition to the auto bailout. Romney wrote a Detroit News newspaper op-ed last week reaffirming his belief that the companies should have entered bankruptcy before receiving public aid, and insisting that the federal intervention was designed mostly to protect the unions, not to revive the companies. “While a lot of workers and investors got the short end of the stick, Obama’s union allies — and his major campaign contributors — reaped reward upon reward, all on the taxpayer’s dime,” Romney wrote.
Nationally, a narrow majority of Americans still say they oppose the bailout, according to a Gallup survey released on Thursday. But nearly two-thirds of Michigan voters (including 40 percent of Republicans) now support the intervention, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll.
Debbie Dingell, a longtime Michigan Democratic activist and wife of Democratic Rep. John Dingell, said that represents a significant shift from internal polling in 2010 that showed the intervention failing to attract majority support even among local Democrats. “It’s gotten there,” she said. “When we were doing our polling last year, it wasn’t there. But the fact that it’s worked and gotten so much discussion has increased the numbers.”
And that, in turn, has increased the optimism among local Democrats that Obama, who held an 18 percentage-point lead in Michigan over Romney in that NBC News/Marist poll, can recapture a state that swung sharply toward the Republicans in their 2010 midterm landslide.