Battlefield Rust Belt

Obama gears up for his re-election campaign in the industrial Midwest.

Eric Johnson

A worker builds an engine for a 2012 Ford Focus on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Co.'s assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., Dec. 14, 2011. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

DETROIT – President Barack Obama won the industrial Midwest in 2008 with a message of hope and change, but he faces a much different political and economic re-election landscape. And with key congressional races looming in 2012, the beleaguered Rust Belt will be on the front lines of the battle over competing definitions of American capitalism and plans to restore the dwindling middle class.

Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008. Months before the election, Obama is already ahead of likely nominee [Mitt] Romney by 14 points.

In states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana – where Republican lawmakers have successfully pushed anti-labor legislation since early 2011 – unions and fiscal hawks have flocked to the streets and capitol buildings with teeth bared and fists clenched. This election is about the heart and soul of America,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) says.

Let’s go through the states. Illinois votes Democrat solidly. Indiana is leaning Republican (before 2008 no Democratic nominee had won Indiana since 1964), and some observers say Obama’s campaign is under-invested there. Obama carried Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin handily in 2008, but they are also up for grabs. This trio carries 44 Electoral College votes – with the goal of 270, it’s all but impossible for Obama to win re-election without winning two of these states.

When asked about the president’s health reform and its contentious mandate that Americans obtain health insurance – which Ohioans voted against in a November 2011 ballot – an Obama staffer there said the president will make income inequality, the successful auto industry bailout and plans to boost manufacturing centerpieces of his campaign. 

Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin said they will respond by crediting their governors’ fiscal discipline, laissez-faire regulatory approach and lower taxation with improving economic conditions in their states. We’ve obtained a triple A credit rating, we have a budget surplus right now of $1.2 billion and we are moving up the list of the best places to do business,” says Pete Seat, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party. That is because of Governor Mitch Daniels’ record, not the government intervention and stimulus that Obama pushes.”

The odds are in his favor’

Midwest manufacturing was hit hard by the Great Recession. Many of the 2.2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost in the past four years were here; few have come back, and those that have often pay less.

What do the leading GOP presidential candidates say they’ll do to get the Rust Belt moving again? Front-runner Mitt Romney attacks China on unfair trade practices and policies that artificially deflate the price of Chinese goods. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum says manufacturers would create more jobs if their corporate taxes were eliminated. 

But Rust Belt voters may warm to Obama’s proposals for revitalizing manufacturing through innovation and worker re-education, instead of competing on labor costs, said James Burnell, a professor of economics and urban studies at the College of Wooster. We are not a cheap labor country,” Burnell says.

Unemployment has come down in recent months, but in January the rate in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois was above (while Ohio and Wisconsin were below) the national average of 8.3 percent. The housing crisis has also hurt the region, devastating already-blighted cities like Detroit, which saw 56,000 foreclosures last year. 

That number angers David Green, Detroit-area Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, who applauds Obama’s proposed multi-billion-dollar package to help struggling U.S. homeowners. Despite misgivings over Obama’s record, Green says the president’s support of the 2009 government-led bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler helps him here. The odds are in his favor,” said Green, who campaigned for Obama in 2008 but has not done so this time around. 

Automakers’ sales have risen 29.1 percent since the bailout. The Obama campaign touts this and has attacked Michigan-native Mitt Romney – who edged Santorum to win the Michigan primary in late February – for his opposition, made clear in a 2008 editorial titled Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008. Months before the election, Obama is already ahead of likely nominee Romney in Michigan by 14 points, according to late February numbers. The campaign feels so strongly about its chances in Michigan that several Obama campaign staff members have said if Obama is behind in state polls a month before the election, he’s lost his re-election bid. 

Democrats generally garner more support among white working-class voters in the Rust Belt than they do elsewhere. Obama lost that bloc by 6 percentage points in 2008, lifted instead by an outpouring of support from minority, youth and college-educated voters. The president’s real challenge is not to convert Romney supporters – it is to re-energize his base,” said a top donor to the Obama campaign. There are a lot of people just fed up with the political process. If he can’t get voters excited about his message – then he is in trouble.”

Ohio: the bellwether state

Beyond roughly 600 staff and volunteers at its Chicago headquarters, the Obama campaign has committed the most resources to Ohio, which has voted for every winning president since 1960 and which Obama carried in 2008 by 5 points. 

Obama’s campaign won last time with huge voter drives in Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland. It has offices in those cities and one in Chillicothe, in the state’s southern region. The campaign will open a few dozen more offices in the next couple of months as it builds an 88-county presence, a campaign official said. It’ll need a big army. Many volunteers were spurred into action early when conservatives and labor unions battled last year over a Republican state bill limiting collective-bargaining powers of public-sector unions. A GOP legislative majority passed it, but voters overturned the bill through a referendum in November.

[Gov. John] Kasich really kicked over the hornet’s nest with his assault on workers,” says Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Justin Barasky. 

That fight persuaded retired physician Brendan Thompson, 73, a volunteer at Obama’s Chicago headquarters, to travel to conservative counties in Ohio to tout the president’s record. I consider Obama more vulnerable in Ohio than other states in the Midwest,” he says. But voters there sent a mixed message in November when, in addition to striking down Kasich’s anti-labor law, they rejected the insurance mandate in Obama’s healthcare bill. It’s an open question what these two votes will mean in November,” says Chris Littleton, cofounder of the Ohio Liberty Council, an umbrella group of Tea Parties in Ohio.

The battle lines are also sharp in Wisconsin, which Obama won by about 14 percentage points in 2008. State politics have been consumed by an anti-union bill passed by the Republican legislature and Governor Scott Walker in 2011. Democratic activists hope to remove Walker in a recall election this year, so Wisconsin will likely be a tight race. Obama won Wisconsin walking away in 2008,” says Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. This time he will have to fight for it.”

Cracking the working-class code

The level of government spending and regulation on our businesses is insane and the tax system is used too much for social engineering,” said Bill Nelson, 47, speaking outside a Tea Party convention in Evansville, Ind. 

Obama won Indiana narrowly in 2008 with 44 field offices, a huge voter drive and television advertising in key regions. But a lot has changed. Republicans there made huge gains in the 2010 midterm elections, winning majorities in the state’s General Assembly. Today the Obama campaign has roughly three staff members at its Indianapolis headquarters and roughly a dozen regular volunteers, a Democratic official said in February. Obama has pretty much given up on Indiana,” says Brian Vargus, political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 

Paul Trencher, the campaign manager for Congressman Joe Donnelly (D-2nd District) in his bid to unseat Republican Senator Richard Lugar, said Democrats could make up ground by rallying around recently passed right to work” legislation championed by Gov. Daniels. Unions say this pits workers against each other, and dilutes labor power. For years, Democratic candidates have been ahead of rank-and-file labor on guns, on choice – these are conservative men,” Trencher said. But some of the rank and file are finally realizing that economic issues are where their concerns need to be in 2012. These (Republican) folks are interested in busting unions. And they did it.”

If Obama does try for Indiana again, Democrats will run a campaign based on labor issues, said Indiana Democratic Party Spokesman Ben Ray, adding that polling in Ohio suggests doing so could increase by roughly 10 percentage points the 55 percent of labor households who typically vote Democratic.

But Republicans are not going to wait and see what the Obama campaign does. We want to correct the mistake that was made in 2008,” says Pete Seat, a spokesman for the Indiana GOP.

To win Indiana, the campaign must crack the code” of working-class Rust Belt families, a major donor familiar with the campaign’s strategy discussions said. I drove by a truck in Indiana that had union bumper stickers all over its back, but in the middle was a sticker that was a play on Obama’s Hope” message. It said, Dope,’” the donor said. If you can capture the heart of Indiana – and that guy with bumper stickers and his wife and kids – you are now in a position to translate that into western Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa. 

But,” he added, that family is complicated.”

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