They drive trucks. They wait on tables. Some still have factory jobs. And they likely will determine which Republican presidential candidate walks away with one of Super Tuesday’s biggest prizes.
White working-class voters -- individuals without a college degree -- may amount to half the primary turnout in Midwestern bellwether Ohio on March 6, says Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington.
Buffeted by global economic forces their political representatives have done little to mitigate, these voters head for the polls bruised and skeptical.
“Somebody’s got to step up and help us, instead of helping the companies and banks,” says James Snyder, 45, an unemployed steelworker in Steubenville. “If they don’t help the little people, they won’t survive, and they’re the backbone of the country.”
Voters like Snyder, who is undecided, face a choice between two leading candidates with very different styles: Mitt Romney, a co-founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital LLC with a penchant for references to his wealth, such as last week’s offhand remark that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs,” and Rick Santorum, a coal miner’s grandson who boasts about his “working-class roots.”
Struggle to Connect
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor whose fortune is estimated at up to $250 million, has struggled to connect with voters of modest means. Santorum, a millionaire former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, leads his rival among those with household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 by 34 percent to 29 percent, according to a March 2 Quinnipiac University poll. That’s down from a 19-point Santorum advantage in a Feb. 27 Quinnipiac survey.
Romney, 64, topped Santorum by 3 percentage points among college-educated voters. Among those without a four-year degree, Santorum enjoyed a 9-point gap. Overall, Santorum held a 4-point advantage over Romney, down from 7 points earlier and within the survey’s 4.3 point error margin.
Though not back to pre-recession levels, the state is rebounding faster than most, which could complicate Republican efforts to play to workers’ discontent. The opposition party also confronts the legacy of a failed bid by Ohio Governor John Kasich and a Republican-controlled legislature to limit collective bargaining that was overturned in a November referendum by a 61-to-39 margin.
Ohio, which lost almost 275,000 manufacturing jobs, a 30 percent decline over the last decade, ranks fifth in improving economic health in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the third quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of last year, the most recent data available.
The Bush and Obama administrations’ rescue of the domestic auto industry in 2008-09 has paid off for state companies. General Motors Co. (GM)’s Lordstown plant is barreling along on three shifts, making the popular Chevy Cruze. Near Youngstown, Vallourec SA (VK)’s V&M Star unit this summer will begin producing small steel tubes to exploit the region’s shale gas boom.
The company is advertising on its website job openings for production operators, crane operators and maintenance personnel. Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in January, compared with 8.3 percent nationwide that month, and the state added 32,800 jobs from a revised December total, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported today.
Throughout the campaign, Santorum has targeted “Reagan Democrats,” who helped Ronald Reagan defeat President Jimmy Carter in 1980. In remarks after winning the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, Santorum, 53, hailed his grandfather, a coal miner in early 20th century southwestern Pennsylvania, saying he had taught him: “work hard, work hard, and work hard.”
Santorum has proposed exempting manufacturers from the 35 percent corporate tax. Yet today’s “Reagan Democrat” is as apt to work in a big box retailer as on an assembly line, says Henry Olsen, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The state’s top employer is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) with 52,275 workers spread across its 173 outlets in Ohio, according to a September report by the Ohio Department of Development. That’s the most in any state, except for California, Texas and Florida, each of which has several million more residents, according to a recent company report.
“One of the weaknesses that Santorum has had so far is he talks about and seems to think about the white working class as if nothing has changed since 1980,” Olsen says.
The Catholic conservative’s frequent comments on issues such as contraception complicate his efforts to attract working class voters, who aren’t as reliably religious as their parents’ generation, according to Olsen.
Snyder, the father of daughters aged 15 and 13, says he’s tired of Republican candidates squabbling over social issues instead of laying out an economic vision to help working families. Though he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, Snyder says he’ll do so again only “if I have to.”
Ohio has been one of the nation’s industrial anchors since John D. Rockefeller established his 19th century Standard Oil Co. empire along Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline. Later, eastern Ohio’s Mahoning Valley flourished as an auto and steel industry mainstay, providing jobs for generations of workers whose chief credential was a willingness to work hard.
“People around here like to make stuff,” says Bill Binning, who headed the Mahoning County Republican Party in the 1980s.
Older, whiter, less educated than the national average, according to the U.S. Census, Ohio has lived a familiar Rust Belt story of extended decline. In 1984, the typical state household was slightly more prosperous than the national average. Over the next quarter century, as the national median income rose by 16 percent, the typical Ohioan lost ground.
The state’s 2010 median income of $46,093, adjusted for inflation, was less than 1984’s $46,217, according to Census Bureau data.
For the non-college-educated workers who dominate Ohio’s workforce, globalization has meant disorienting competition. Nationally, changes in trade and technology produced a barbell- shaped labor market with increasing numbers of workers in high- and low-wage jobs, bracketing a thinned middle, according to a November 2011 study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The number of mid-skill jobs such as machine operators fell by more than half between 1980 and 2009, wrote economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz. And wages have stagnated or declined for some of these positions, which once allowed workers with no more than a high school diploma to build a decent life. The median wage for construction jobs fell from $38,000 to $35,000 in 2009, even as salaries for computer-related jobs rose 37 percent, the study found.
At the same time, surging imports from China were responsible for one-third of the roughly 4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost between 1990 and 2007, according to a 2011 study by economists David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David Dorn of Madrid’s Institute for the Study of Labor and Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego. Ohio was among the victims.
‘Got Their Back’
Higher skill requirements, competition from workers overseas willing to take less pay and declining union protections have left many working-class voters feeling exposed to powerful economic forces.
“The thing they most want is to know someone’s got their back,” said Olsen.
Ohio was hit hard during the economic declines of the past decade, losing 578,900 jobs, or 10.3 percent, from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only Michigan lost a higher percentage of jobs during that period, federal data show.
Since then, the state added 72,400 jobs last year, fifth most nationwide, federal data show. That gain included 18,300 manufacturing jobs.
In the 2012 general election, Republicans will be seeking to maximize their white working class vote to offset Democratic advantages among other groups, such as minorities and younger voters. The president needs to hold his working-class losses to a minimum.
In 2008, Obama lost that group by 18 percentage points nationally and 10 points in Ohio on the way to winning the presidency.
“A Republican national candidate needs to not only do well among this group. He has to basically crush his Democratic opponent among this group,” says Teixeira.
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