Mitt Romney’s struggle to win blue collar Ohio voters

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During the 2008 primary campaign, Mike Huckabee quipped: “I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.” It was an obvious shot at Mitt Romney, and unfortunately, it rang true. That’s not to say Mitt Romney is a bad guy, but it is to say that his style and personality are outside the experience of many blue collar Americans.

Being rich isn’t the problem in terms of reaching this populist audience. Ross Perot was rich. Seeming rich is the problem. Voters like to vote for people who are just like them. And as ridiculous as it is to pretend that Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar or Harvard-educated George W. Bush — are just like us! — with them, we could at least pretend.

This sounds trivial, but it matters greatly — especially in places like Ohio.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball is consistently a “must read,” and her latest column reinforces a point I’ve been making for a long time — that Mitt Romney is in danger of under-performing with working-class whites in key states like the Buckeye state. (Ball’s teaser says it all: “In Appalachian coal country, Romney is now viewed with nearly as much suspicion as Obama — and that may be the story of the 2012 election.”)

There is at least one substantive reason for these voters to be skeptical of Romney. While interviewing Ohio voters, Ball stumbled over an interesting blast from the past:

It turns out Romney, as governor of Massachusetts in 2003, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” he said, and then, gesturing at the facility behind him: “That plant, that plant kills people.” You can see the footage in an Obama campaign ad that’s been airing heavily here. It seems to have made an impression.

The notion that Romney would be worse for coal than Obama seems absurd. Still, Obama is using the line to effectively muddy the waters. All he really needs is for voters to conclude, “they’re both bad,” and Obama can consider that a victory. Ball sums it up thusly,

I heard it over and over again from Ohioans — the idea that Romney stands for the wealthy and not for them. Obama’s depiction of his rival as an out-of-touch rich guy, which has gotten no little assistance from Romney himself, has made a deep and effective impression with these self-consciously working-class voters.

It may not be fair to Romney, but it is hugely problematic — he has to win Ohio. Having said that, this is hardly surprising. In fact, I’ve been writing about this for months. On January 5, I made the hypothetical argument for why Rick Santorum might actually be Barack Obama’s toughest opponent. (My first two points seem especially prescient now):

1. Blue collar appeal. With the economy struggling, President Obama is clearly preparing to paint former Bain Capital executive Mitt Romney as part of the 1 percent — as “Gordon Gekko” — so to speak. Class warfare might be the sharpest arrow in the Obama quiver, but it would be much harder to use on Santorum. As David Brooks recently noted,

“Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant. For years, he represented the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. He has spent the last year scorned by the news media — working relentlessly, riding around in a pickup truck to more than 370 towns. He tells that story of hard work and elite disrespect with great fervor at his meetings.”

Of course, Santorum’s populist appeal transcends his family background. It manifests itself in his policy decisions, and dovetails the compassionate tenets of his faith. As Brooks also noted, in the U.S. Senate, Santorum “was a leader in nearly every serious piece of antipoverty legislation.”

2. Swing states. We don’t have a popular election; electoral votes are what counts. And some of the most important swing states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. — just happen be states where Santorum’s blue collar, populist message would likely resonate (these states also tend to have a disproportionately large Catholic population). Having a messenger who can appeal to the blue collar, “lunch pail” workers in the “rust belt” would seem to be a smart move for the GOP.

For a while now, I’ve been observing how noncollege-educated white men have been hit hard especially by recent economic changes. There is no doubt that there is a group of disaffected voters in key swing states. With a bad Obama economy, they should be easy to persuade. But Mitt Romney is hardly the best Republican to grab them. As I wrote on April 20:

[T]here is a politically underrepresented “populist” constituency in America. Demographically, they are noncollege-educated whites. Philosophically, they are generally Christian conservatives who are also skeptical of big business. They are pro-gun and pro-union. They are pro-life and pro-tariff. They believe in God and government.

To one degree or another, candidates like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot have wooed them in the recent past. Even more recently, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have flirted with them. But neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have a natural connection with them.

So far, this group has not equaled electoral success. That might change, though, if times get even tougher. Might there is room for a populist third party candidate to emerge? Maybe not this year. But my guess is that one of the major political parties will have to find a way to woo this group of disaffected voters — especially if the economy fails to improve.

The fact that Republicans can’t just assume the votes of what Garth Brooks might call “the mud flap, six pack, bear crack, overtaxed, flag waving, fun loving crowd” is an obviously concerning shift. But that appears to be the situation we are in. (Note: Mitt Romney today released a memo arguing that Ohio is still “up for grabs.”)

The problem for Republicans is that Barack Obama doesn’t need to convince rural and blue collar whites in states like Ohio to vote for him. He just needs to convince them that they should just stay home — and stick it to the rich guy.

Matt K. Lewis