Ohio chooses Romney, for now
CLEVELAND—Every four years, Ohio’s anonymous white, male, blue-collar worker emerges from obscurity like a ghost parting the fog over Lake Erie.
Who is this mystery man? Who will he vote for this time, in this presidential election?
The rest of the nation — or at least the presidential candidates and the journalists who cover them — are dying to know. Especially now that Mitt Romney squeaked through Ohio’s Republican primary by the skin of his shiny white teeth. This rambling, unpredictable state picked Romney in March. But what does that mean for November, assuming he’s the nominee?
Too much of the national political coverage will now proceed to lump together all white, blue-collar workers, regardless of whether they belong to a union. As if union affiliation were just a talking point, rather than an elevated standard of living. It’s a false equivalence, as these are usually two different groups of voters, and non-union workers — the ones less likely to be Democratic — have increasingly been up for grabs.
This year, maybe not. Recent developments in Ohio — coupled with the elitist, no-clue narrative of Romney — could chip away at past Republican gains.
Ohio’s primary exit polls don’t tend to reflect the differences between union and non-union voters. We know that 96 percent of the electorate was white, 53 percent of it male, and 32 percent made less than $50,000 a year. That last group slightly favored Santorum.
Still, there is no breakdown for how many of the primary voters belong to a union, let alone an autoworkers union. The majority of union factory workers remain loyal to the Democratic Party, even more so than before the GOP tried to curtail collective-bargaining rights. Ohio’s union workers, particularly the tens of thousands of autoworkers and the Americans who love them, will support the president whose legislation pulled the auto industry — and their livelihood — from the brink. Just two years after the auto rescue, GM earned its largest profit ever. Its Lordstown operation in the storied Mahoning Valley is running three shifts again and produced 231,732 of the Chevrolet Cruze compact cars sold last year, outpacing Buick and Cadillac sales combined.
In the northwestern part of the state, Toledo’s auto industry is humming too. The city’s North Assembly Plant is expected to launch Chrysler’s new versions of the Dodge Avenger, Chrysler 200 sedan, Jeep Liberty and Jeep Compass.
This is good news even for non-union male workers, who want to believe that in Ohio a man can still build things with his hands and make enough money to support his family. They know that the old adage holds true: Union workers’ wages drive up non-union wages in companies that want to keep skilled workers. This is good news.
Turnout was slightly higher than in the 2008 primary (about 1.1 million voters), but the GOP race was all but decided when it got to Ohio last cycle. This year, voters appear less than thrilled with their options. Across the state, Republican voters told reporters Tuesday night that they waited until the last days — sometimes the final hours — before making up their minds. A majority of voters have reservations or dislike their candidate. Romney’s ad blitz dragged him across the finish line, but only barely, suggesting that those coveted blue-collar workers have yet to embrace the personal narrative of Romney.
Here you don’t have to talk to many working-class men, doing just about any kind of job, before the damning narrative of Romney rises like bile. Their mantra: He wanted the auto industry to go bankrupt, and this was a double betrayal: of autoworkers and of his roots. Romney, after all, grew up in neighboring Michigan, which produces even more cars than Ohio.
Last fall, something else happened here that stunned Republicans and has dogged them ever since. They failed to predict the voters’ fury after they passed a state law that gutted public workers’ rights to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. The outrage didn’t come from just the 350,000 public employees affected, including police officers, firefighters, teachers and state workers. It also came from all those Ohioans who knew, respected and even loved those 350,000. A popular protest button summed up the collective mood pretty well: United We Stand, Divided We Beg.
The legislation, known as SB 5, was similar to Wisconsin’s anti-union law, with the notable exception that in Ohio, voters could repeal it. To do so, activists had to gather 231,000 valid signatures to get the issue on the ballot; they collected five times that number. Last November, 61 percent of Ohio voters defeated SB 5, and Republican Gov. John Kasich’s already tenuous approval rating tanked.
A Republican has never won the White House without winning Ohio. So, every four years we get to be a little smug. It’s a wildly diverse state, and we’re used to being misunderstood. In a 2004 special election series, the Cleveland Plain Dealer divvied up the state into the Five Ohios. Eight years later, the boundaries hold. You can start the day in the liberal, industrial heartland of the northeast, where the Cleveland Clinic is the largest employer, and drive only two hours south on I-77 before you’re standing in the foothills of Appalachia, the poorest and least educated part of the state. A lot of Clevelanders talk like they’re from Brooklyn. In some parts of Cincinnati, you’d swear you were in Kentucky — which you are, if you land at Cincinnati’s airport.
It’s hard to get a defining quote for a state that is so indefinable, so darn big. That never stops the national media from trying.
You can find someone to say just about anything in Ohio. Count on that in the months ahead. Reporters will find the woman who cares only about jobs, living next to the woman who wants to bring the troops home from Afghanistan but whose sister is still fuming about access to contraception. You’ll hear about the pro-union guy who drives the Honda, and the Tea Party activist who loves his Medicare and wants the government to stay out of his healthcare. They’re here, all right, but they aren’t the ones both parties need to court.
Across the country, the usual stories about those whacky Ohioans will unfurl like paper napkins at county fairs.
Meanwhile, those of us who live here will be keeping a watchful eye on those gruff, blue-collar workers. Despite their hard, non-union times, they still believe Ohio is a place where real men make things, big things. And they want a president who thinks so, too.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney talks to reporters on his campaign plane before leaving Columbus, Ohio, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder. A voter looks over his ballot to place a vote at a polling station in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012, as Republicans hold their “Super Tuesday” presidential primary in 10 states. REUTERS/Jim Young