The Feb. 28 Michigan primary should have been a quick spin around the block for favorite son Mitt Romney. He was born in Detroit to an auto industry executive who eventually would turn around the struggling American Motors Corp. and become governor of Michigan. Instead, the former GOP frontrunner is in the race of his political life, trailing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by as much as 10 points in two polls released on Wednesday.
But the former Massachusetts governor’s toughest primary opponent in Michigan may not be the surging Santorum, but resurgent Detroit automakers. Romney, who famously urged lawmakers to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” in a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece , can chalk up his flagging fortunes in part to the rising tide at General Motors (NYSE: GM), Ford (NYSE: F) and Fiat SpA’s Chrysler. And with that tide starting to lift the ships of Michigan’s small businesses and “working families,” Romney’s vigorous defense of his position sounds oddly out of touch to voters.
“All politics is local,” the late House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once said. That, better than anything, explains why GOP voters who, in principle, oppose massive government bailouts of private industry are poised to punish Romney for arguing that automakers should have been allowed to sink four years ago.
Romney’s stubborn insistence that he was right about the bailouts has failed to gain traction with voters, in part because he beat Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the 2008 Michigan primary by vowing to be the “one man” who would “transform” the auto industry and “save those jobs.” A few months later, he decried emergency loans to the Detroit Three, predicting that a bailout would virtually guarantee the U.S. auto industry’s demise.
With the companies at Detroit’s economic core circling the drain, many locals felt betrayed by Romney’s flip-flop and apparent disregard of the pain the industry’s collapse would cause. If the bailouts — initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama — had resulted in a meltdown of the domestic auto industry, Romney would win the “I told you so” straw poll hands down.
But the Detroit Three staged an improbable comeback instead. GM took back the lead in U.S. auto sales and last year tallied its biggest profit ever. Ford last month posted its best annual profit since 1998 (although that was largely due to a tax break). And Chrysler made money for the first time since 2005. Vehicles manufactured by the Detroit Three made up more than 47% of U.S. sales last year – the highest share since 2008.
That good news is starting to trickle down. In manufacturing-heavy Michigan, the revved-up auto industry has helped drive unemployment down from 16.6% in 2009 to 9.3% today. Between December 2010 and December 2011, 66,500 jobs were added in the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s giving automakers reason to take a victory lap. “It’s halftime in America,” the gravelly voice of Clint Eastwood intoned over file footage of Detroit just before the second half kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI. Chrysler’s controversial spot — more campaign ad than car commercial — raised the spectre of out of work, hurting people trying to make a comeback. “Detroit’s showing us it can be done,” Eastwood said. “And what’s true about them is true about all of us.”
Voting is not a left-brain activity, as much as political scientists would have it be otherwise. Voters choose candidates by passion rather than policy; image trumps issues. So if Michigan voters feel good about the rebounding auto industry, Romney’s continual refrain of “the bailout was still wrong” won’t change those perceptions. In fact, the subtext of his argument — that voters just don’t understand that the government rescue was a bad thing — is only likely to annoy people.