LORDSTOWN, Ohio—In March 2009, Dave Green, president of United Auto Workers' Local 1714, felt a creeping panic. Men holding clipboards and taking notes walked around the Lordstown General Motors plant where his members worked, and from outside came the constant hum of inventory-taking helicopters. Rumors flew that the GM plant, which employed thousands of workers, was going to be sold off or liquidated, another casualty of the recession.
"We knew the money was running out," Green, a Barack Obama supporter, said. "We didn't know what was going to happen."
Within the next two months, the Obama administration bailed out GM as well as Chrysler, aided by billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loans. In exchange, the companies declared bankruptcy and reorganized. While the federal government is expected to lose about $20 billion of the $80 billion it handed to industry—an industry smaller than it was before the recession hit—it's no longer at death's door.
(The unofficial slogan at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month: "Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.")
Even better for locals: In August, GM announced it would invest an extra $200 million in the Lordstown plant so that its 4,500 workers could continue to build the popular Chevy Cruze, an unexpected best-seller, in three shifts each day.
It makes sense, then, that union leaders in Lordstown are out in force to get the president re-elected, and that Obama and his campaign continually tout the president as a savior of Ohio's auto industry and, by extension, its economy. But it remains to be seen whether Ohioans are buying what the campaign's selling.
In this hotly contested state, where residents almost always pick the next president, Obama is contending with a shrinking union rank and file not always in lockstep with the union party line. And while independent analysts say the car industry would have failed without the bailout, some voters in Ohio, where one in eight jobs is related to the auto industry, aren't convinced.
Romney is fast gaining ground in the state—last week he drew large, enthusiastic crowds when campaigning—and Obama has seen his lead narrow to 2 percentage points in an average of seven polls taken after his lackluster first debate performance.
Perhaps even more problematic for the president's bailout pitch is that unions are a declining force in Ohio politics. Union households make up 15 percent of the electorate, down from about 22 percent 20 years ago, according to University of Cincinnati political science professor Al Tuchfarber. They still, however, wield power. Last November, Ohio resoundingly recalled a bill supported by Republican Gov. John Kasich that stripped public unions' collective bargaining rights.
When campaigning in Ohio last week, Romney spoke about the economy and argued that Obama hasn't created enough jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector. But two words that did not cross his lips? "Auto bailout."
The GOP challenger and his surrogates generally steer clear of the topic when in Ohio, and for good reason: In 2008, Romney wrote an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that car companies would collapse if taxpayer money helped fund a bailout, and that GM and Chrysler could restructure themselves after going through a privately financed bankruptcy. The Obama campaign has continually flung the op-ed, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," in the campaign's face, arguing that Romney's plan would have left Ohio in the cold.
Romney didn't visit Lordstown on his five-day Ohio swing last week, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a top Romney supporter, stopped by to attend a small rally on Tuesday. The town of 4,000, which GM has labeled "Cruze Country," is heavily Democratic, and attendees at the Christie rally joked about being outnumbered in the area. But two neighboring counties, which also benefit economically from the plant and are home to some plant workers, are expected to vote for Romney.
Christie didn't mention the auto plant in his brief address.
Both Local 1714's Green and Glenn Johnson, the president of another UAW local in Lordstown also supporting Obama, said it made no sense for Christie to speak there without mentioning the town's economic engine. "It was a crossroads, literally a crossroads," Johnson said of the town before the plant.
But Christie had his loyalists. Jim Kane, a 63-year-old former auto worker forced into early retirement in 2009, stood close to the stage, eager to hear the governor speak. Kane, a Republican, is among a group of about 20,000 retired workers at Delphi, a parts supplier once owned by GM, whose pensions were cut by 30 percent or more by the government during the bailout. (In bankruptcy negotiations, Delphi relinquished its pension obligations to the government, which then cut the amount it would pay by 30 to 70 percent.)
GM agreed to make up the difference in the pensions of Delphi workers who were members of the UAW union, while salaried workers like Kane, who for the most part weren't allowed to join the hourly-wage worker union, were left with slashed pensions and health insurance. The uneven treatment prompted criticisms of union favoritism.
A veteran with diabetes, Kane was able to get insurance through Veterans Affairs when GM cut his health-care coverage, but his wife, who has rheumatoid arthritis, and his autistic son are still uninsured.
"We're living so close to the edge right now," Kane said. "I agree with Romney, I believe that places like GM would have taken care of themselves under bankruptcy. GM would have made it through."
(Lordstown's Republican mayor, Arlo Hill, also told Yahoo News he thinks the plant would have survived without the bailout.)
Christie was introduced by UAW member Mark Bedenik, who traveled to Lordstown from Cleveland, where he works at parts supplier Alcoa Cleveland Works. Bedenik wore a bright-yellow UAW shirt altered to read Romney-Ryan. After the event, he clutched his laminated introduction speech as two other UAW workers thanked Bedenik for speaking.
Bedenik, like many other union members, has been canvassing for his candidate. He says he's seeing past and present union members who are newly minted Republicans, and who don't believe the bailout saved the auto industry or jobs in general. "I've gone door to door," he said. "You will see their vote."
Green said he feels most active and retired union members will vote for Obama and that Bedenik is the exception. Green, along with other supporters, is also knocking on doors and making calls, reminding Ohioans that they or someone they know might be out of a job if not for Obama. Supporters credit Ohio's lower-than-average unemployment rate (7.2 percent in August compared to 8.1 percent nationally) to Obama's policies, especially the bailout.
"They feel like they owe this government something and this president something because he was taking a lot of shots for supporting us," Green said of his local's approximately 5,000 members.
About a mile away from the Lordstown park where Christie spoke, volunteers in a wood-paneled conference room in the Local 1714 union hall take shifts calling the union's 3,500 retired and 1,500 active members to ask them to support Obama. Last week union member Kelvin Harlemon worked the phone. He said he had talked to a few members who supported Obama in 2008 but now leaned toward Romney.
"Good morning! This is Kelvin Harlemon over here at 1714," he boomed into the phone. "We're just calling out to our union brothers and sisters. ... Are you intending to vote this year in our presidential election?" Harlemon stared blankly ahead for nearly a minute before saying, "He hung up." He laughed. "What a job."
Nine of the 16 people who answered the phone over a 20-minute period told Harlemon they planned to vote for Obama. Six people hung up on him. One person yelled into the phone, "Yeah I'm going to vote, but I don't like either one of them," and then hung up.
Earlier in the morning, a retired union member told Harlemon that he was an Obama supporter but thought he'd vote for Romney. "Now [Obama's] talking about Big Bird," the man told Harlemon. "I don't want to hear about Big Bird. I'm voting for Mitt." Harlemon reminded the man that Obama had supported labor in the past, and that Romney was against the bailout. The man said he would take this into consideration.
Green (who does an uncanny Bill Clinton impression) said he tells union members they don't have to love Obama to vote for him.
"I love Bill, wish he could run," Green said of the former president. "But you don't have to love Obama, you know. I mean he's not the magic god. ... He's just a guy. But he at least believes in labor. So if you work in labor you ought to slap yourself in the head if you think the other guy will do you better."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the government is expected to lose $19 billion on the auto bailout. The latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office is $20 billion.