Michigan’s Auto Industry Workers, Republicans at a Crossroads

BY Dante Chinni  February 28, 2012 at 11:12 AM EDT


WARREN, Mich. | If you want a sense of the challenges Mitt Romney and the GOP have in Michigan, you could learn a lot from standing on the corner of Mound and East 9 Mile roads here in suburban Detroit.

As the workers filed out at the end of their shift Monday at the Chrysler plant here, they had few kinds words to offer the former Massachusetts governor or his party. When asked if they were planning on voting Tuesday most offered befuddled looks or, from one worker, a half-minute of laughter before he said, “My mother said don’t say anything if you can’t say anything nice.”

This is auto industry country, and the people who work in the Chrysler plant or the General Motors plant across the street are not pleased that all of the Republican candidates for president opposed the federal auto bailout that saved their jobs.

Some may assume that the workers here, loyal members of the United Auto Workers, never would have voted for a Republican anyway, but that’s not completely accurate. This is Macomb County, the birthplace of swing-voting Reagan Democrats, and many of these workers have voted for Republicans in the past, even in 2008. In 10 random interviews in the course of an hour here, three workers said they voted for McCain.

Scott Kanas works at the Chrysler truck plant. He said he voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 because “I knew Obama was going to be like this,” which is too liberal for him. But he sees nothing to like in the Republican field.

“Look who they are giving us now. What do they think, we’re stupid?” Kanas said. His anger is trained especially at Romney, who grew up in Michigan and whose father was head of American Motors. “Now he’s Michigan’s son, before he told us to kiss his ass. He has no loyalty. His loyalty is to the almighty buck.”

Kanas says he could never vote for President Obama, but he considers Romney an “enemy.” Unless another candidate emerges he suspects he will not vote in November.

Places like Warren and Macomb County, a Monied Burb in Patchwork Nation, represent a real problem for the Republican Party — and especially Romney. The Burbs (in beige on the map below) are where elections are decided, and they have been a base of support for Romney thus far in the nominating campaign.

But the Burbs, particularly the Burbs in Michigan and Ohio, are also home to many auto manufacturing jobs. And Tuesday night represents the first real test for Romney and the GOP to see if the party’s approach to the bailout will hurt them.

There are a lot of votes in densely populated southeastern Michigan, around Detroit. In 2008, Oakland and Macomb counties went big for Romney and gave the GOP its biggest turnout. Respectively, those counties contributed 133,000 and 77,000 votes to the 2008 GOP primary. If those numbers are down a lot on Tuesday, it may mean the GOP has real problems in Michigan with its stance on the auto bailout.

And for Romney, Macomb is a critical barometer.

Both Macomb and Oakland counties are both Monied Burbs, but Oakland, with a median household income of $62,000, is the wealthier community. Macomb, home to more blue-collar workers and lower incomes — a median household income of about $50,000 — could prove a serious challenge for Romney, particularly with the added auto industry baggage he has there. He has struggled with lower-incomes voters in primary votes thus far, and Macomb sits right on the edge. Suburban Cleveland has many similar counties.

It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of auto industry in places like Macomb County at the macro and micro level. The auto jobs around Detroit aren’t just about those jobs, they are about the entire area’s economy.

Across the street from the Chrysler and GM plants, Larry Youla runs the BP gas station and A&W All-American Food that sees workers shuffle through his door and through his gas pumps all day long. He knows many of the workers by name and is closely tuned in what happens in them.

“Here we’re fine. Those plants have been modernized. They will be here in 10 years, so I am fine for at least 10 years,” he said as the workers shuffled through his store to buy cigarettes and soft drinks. Youla’s store is far from alone. There are scores of small shops, restaurants and bars around the plants at the corner of Mound and 9 Mile roads — and there are scores of areas like this in metro Detroit and beyond.

“There are auto jobs in other states, too,” Youla noted. “If they’re mad here, they’re going to be mad in Ohio, too.” Between the two of them, Michigan and Ohio hold almost 1,600 auto manufacturing facilities — general construction and parts — and most of those facilities are aligned with American automakers. That’s something to keep in mind the next few weeks.

Once Michigan is over, attention will turn to Super Tuesday, where Ohio is seen as the big prize.