Back in 2009, Barack Obama made a gutsy move at the beginning of his presidency. He used his political capital on an $82 billion gamble to put General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy, and deal with a bunch of collateral issues surrounding the auto industry.
It gave him bragging rights: "Bin Laden is dead, GM is alive." And his campaign says the bailout saved 1 million jobs. But did it save Obama's neck in this election?
Last week, I talked to the Detroit chapter of IWIRC, an organization whose members are restructuring experts and bankruptcy lawyers. I broke down the implications of the bailout on the swing states and those that are not solidly Democratic or Republican.
It takes 270 votes to win the electoral college. According to The Center for Politics and their analysis of recent polling, Obama has 267 votes, Romney has 235. Seems easy enough for the president, right? He just takes one more state and he's in.
But that's under the mythological, "if the election were held today." It's not going to be held today: it will be two weeks from today. So, let's look at what we've got left, and how the bailout factors in.
Four states are considered genuinely too close to call: Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia, with 36 votes.
The auto industry has played a role in two of them — Wisconsin and Virginia — and in each case, they've lost car plants. GM and Chrysler left Wisconsin, although there are some parts plants left. Ford left Virginia, which also has some parts makers. It's hard to think of much automotive connection to either New Hampshire or Colorado, although residents of both care about the environment.
Virginia, which is the biggest of the four, is home to the National Automobile Dealers Association. Many of its members think dealers were treated unfairly by the bailout. In another era, you'd say the bailout would swing Wisconsin to the Obama column. It has lots of retired union members and the auto industry plays a big role in its history. But as we know, Wisconsin has a Republican governor, Scott Walker, who is virulently anti-union, and it also is the home state of Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee.
Bottom line: the bailout could matter in Wisconsin. It doesn't matter much in the other three.
Four states are leaning Democratic — Nevada, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania — with 50 votes, and two states, North Carolina and Florida, are leaning Republican. Together, they have 44 votes.
You can cross Iowa off the bailout affected list. Nevada has some union strength in Las Vegas, where the UAW likes to hold its national conventions, but unemployment and the collapse of the housing market trump everything else there.
The bailout is a big story in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Northern Ohio has always been tied to Detroit. Toledo, Cleveland and Youngstown all were helped by the bailout, which explains why Obama has made so many trips. But once you're close to Columbus, that becomes Honda territory, and Honda is the state's biggest automotive employer. As in previous elections, the north-south division in Ohio is distinct.
Pennsylvania is automotive connected by a degree of separation, through the steel and coal industries. And of course, Joe Biden grew up in Scranton. It's thought of as a pro-union state. However, Pittsburgh has diversified its economy, to focus on higher education, technology and other sectors. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has grown increasingly conservative.
Let's look at the Republican leaning states. North Carolina has some auto parts presence, but that's because of BMW's plant in Spartanburg, S.C. How about Florida? That's the big mystery.
There are pockets of Detroit retirees all over the state, especially on the west coast (I lived briefly in Sarasota, and you saw tons of Michigan license plates). But as Obama said last week, Detroit executives probably are voting for Romney. Meanwhile, other groups, like Cuban-Americans and Jewish voters, are far more visible in Florida politics.
Bottom line: the bailout could matter in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Because the race is so close, there are enough votes in the bailout affected states to tip the election to Obama. If he keeps the pressure on Romney, as he tried to do Tuesday night, his $82 million jump shot could win for him at the buzzer.
But, in every state where the bailout matters, the economy has been a huge concern. Romney's statement last night, "What we've seen over the last four years is something I don't want to see over the next four years," might just be his Obama shot blocker.
Photo Credit: AP, Center For Politics