A majority of Americans think the federal government should not have helped out U.S. automakers that were in financial trouble, but rather should have allowed them to go it alone, according to a new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
Thirty-six percent of Americans think the government should have provided help, but 55 percent think “these companies should have been allowed to succeed or fail on their own,” the poll shows. The results echo other surveys, including a May 2010 poll conducted by CBS News in which a third of respondents thought the government should have helped, while 61 percent thought they should not have.
Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary contest in Michigan—and President Obama’s speech the same day at the United Auto Workers convention in Washington—has brought the federal government’s assistance package to automakers back to the forefront. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose father served as governor of Michigan and also led American Motors before going into politics, opposed the bailout of automakers, famously penning an op-ed for The New York Times in November 2008 titled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” The government began assisting automakers in 2008 under then-President George W. Bush, and the Obama administration continued the program in 2009.
Romney has been the target of criticism both from his GOP rivals and from Democrats and Obama’s campaign apparatus, which is seeking to keep Michigan in the Democratic column this November as it has been since the 1992 presidential contest. But the Congressional Connection Poll shows that one-fourth of voters nationwide would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who “had supported the auto bailout,” while just 12 percent of voters said it would make them more likely to support that candidate. Three-in-five voters said a candidate’s support for the auto bailout would not make much difference either way.
The Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,005 adults from Feb. 23-26; it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. The poll includes 791 registered voters, for a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
Republicans are more likely to oppose the auto bailout, with 73 percent saying the government should not have helped the automakers, bolstering Romney’s position as he seeks the GOP nomination. Democrats are split: A slim 51 percent majority say the government should have helped, and 42 percent say it should not have.
Independents tilt against the bailout, with 55 percent saying the automakers should have been allowed to succeed or fail on their own. Just 35 percent of independents say the government should have helped.
Among registered voters, 39 percent of Republicans say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the bailout, while just 4 percent say they would be more likely to vote for that candidate. Among independents, only 7 percent would be more likely to vote for a supporter of the auto bailout, and 28 percent would be less likely. Democratic voters tilt slightly toward supporting candidates who backed the auto bailout—22 percent would be more likely to vote for a supporter—but the majority of Democrats say it would not make much difference either way.
The Congressional Connection Poll, like other public surveys on the rescue of U.S. automakers released in the last week, also holds important rhetorical lessons on this issue for both parties—and their presidential candidates.
A Gallup survey released last week found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of “the financial bailout for U.S. automakers that were in danger of failing,” while 44 percent approved. But a Pew Research Center poll also released last week showed that a 56 percent majority of Americans thought the government “loans to General Motors and Chrysler” were “mostly good” for the economy, with just 38 percent saying those loans were “mostly bad” for the economy. Three-and-a-half years after the financial crisis, voters continue to be repelled by the word “bailout,” while portraying the program as “loans” is viewed more favorably.
But in Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, an NBC News/Marist poll released last week showed that the vast majority, 63 percent of voters, think the “auto bailout” was a “good thing,” while only 28 percent think it was a “bad thing.” Perhaps not coincidentally, that poll showed Romney trailing Obama in a general-election matchup in Michigan by 18 percentage points.
This article appears in the Feb. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.