Will Romney's opposition to Obama's auto industry bailout cost him Ohio?

Union-bashing can win you votes, but only for certain unions

Most of the polls have been showing Obama with a lead in Ohio, the state that always seems to decide the U.S. presidential election, while the votes of New York or Texas are completely irrelevant. (God bless the electoral college.) The Romney campaign is naturally arguing that the polls are over-emphasizing Democratic turnout and that they will be able to turn out enough Republican voters to pull out a victory. But if Romney does wind up losing Ohio, it’ll be in large part because of his opposition to Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, which may have depressed his natural advantage among white working-class voters in Ohio.

If the state does wind up hinging on that, then it demonstrates something interesting about how to get ahead in elections: union-bashing can win you votes, but only for certain types of unions. Romney’s opposition to the bailout, like much conservative Republican opposition, was based on the notion that Obama had structured this bailout as a giveaway to the autoworker’s unions. If it had gone down differently, the auto companies might have restructured themselves with fewer commitments to unions, or even come back as non-union companies. As National Review puts it in an endorsement of Romney (which has surprisingly little that’s positive to say about Romney except that he’s not Obama), the auto companies would have been better off without the bailout because they “would have been freer from unaffordable commitments to unions.”

Distrust of unions is a pillar of classic, old-school, business-class Republicanism, so there’s nothing shocking or wrong about this. Back when unions were much more powerful in the U.S., Republicans sometimes had to be more union-friendly to win a majority; Richard Nixon appealed to union leaders and union members who were alienated by the McGovern Democrats’ stands on war and social issues (and what they saw as liberals’ contempt for hard-hat union types). But unions don’t have that kind of power these days, and in the South – the most reliably Republican area – they possess almost no power at all. So both on politics and on principle, it’s usually a sound idea for Republicans to take on unions.

If it turns out to have harmed Republicans this time, it might be because certain types of unions are still more popular than unions overall. And a lot more popular than public sector unions, which have become a very ripe and tempting target. Over in Wisconsin, Republican governor Scott Walker made it one of his main policy goals to remove collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions, and it worked: he easily won a recall election. Other governors, like Chris Christie, have made a lot of hay taking on teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions are so unpopular that there was a whole Maggie Gyllenhaal/Viola Davis movie about how horrible teachers’ unions are. Whatever the merits of the attack, you just can’t lose politically by taking them on.

But it seems like it’s harder to get the same kind of traction when you call for lessened commitments to old-school private-sector unions, particularly the blue-collar kind. Romney and other Republicans were never able to make the United Auto Workers into a villain in the auto bailout story. Even though union power probably isn’t coming back, particularly in America, there’s still a certain affection for the old-style unions that made it possible for people to work a steady job and retire comfortably – the kind of thing that is more or less being relegated to the past, partly by choice, partly by changes. If Romney loses, it might be because he didn’t get the difference between taking on public-sector unions and taking on the unions that people still kind of like.