WASHINGTON -- The Mitt Romney campaign and its business allies are driving home a final message unlike one we've seen in past presidential campaigns: Vote Romney, or you're fired.
The pressure on workers in swing states to toe the GOP line hasn't been restricted to any particular industry. Corporate apparel makers in Ohio, truck stop attendants in Ohio and Virginia, casino employees in Nevada, construction workers in Florida, gift-card purveyors in Colorado and Florida, car-parts makers in Michigan, software technicians in Florida and Colorado, coal miners in Ohio, dock manufacturers in Wisconsin, frozen-food packers in Michigan, resort staff in Florida, Virginia and Nevada, and people all over the country who work -- or used to work -- for Koch Industries or another Koch-owned company have all been given notice by their boss that an Obama victory could lead to layoffs or otherwise harm the company and its workers.
Even workers who'd already been laid off by the Kochs were mailed letters urging them to vote Republican or else "suffer the consequences" of Obama policies that would harm the company.
Romney himself urged conservative business leaders this June to "make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections."
Before the Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United decision, it would have been illegal for a boss to tell an employee that "their job and their future" was on the ballot on Election Day. But the court now considers such electoral pressure an expression of free speech.
"Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision," Romney told the business owners associated with the National Federation of Independent Business, a political organization closely aligned to the Republican Party.
Romney's push to get businesses to pressure workers on Election Day is relatively new. Marc Wolpow, the former managing director at Bain Capital who worked under Romney, told HuffPost the future politician never pressured underlings to vote a certain way. "He was completely apolitical," he said. "There was absolutely no pressure."
Wolpow thought bosses of all political stripes should stay away from campaigning in employee break rooms and penning endorsements for company newsletters. "I don't think it's appropriate for business owners to pressure their employees one way or the other, nor by the way do I think it's appropriate for unions to do it," he said. (Unions, of course, can't fire workers.)
In the case of Request Foods' CEO's endorsement of Romney, it fit neatly into the Michigan company's modus operandi. The company promotes itself as "dedicated to placing priority on Christian principles in every aspect of our business," according to its website. That means quarterly meetings that seem to emphasize GOP politics over business news and chaplains regularly in the office halls, said one former employee.
Romney simply helped reinforce the company's atmosphere. "Just the culture is so right wing," the former employee said. "When they have those workplace chaplains ... They report directly to the head of [human resources]."
Eric Manthei, the logistics coordinator for Request Foods, told HuffPost recently that the CEO's endorsement, which appeared in the company newsletter, did not cause any reaction among employees. "I don't think it was weird at all," he said. "They are very open and transparent with their thoughts and beliefs. All the employees fall in line. They support our business policies."
Until recently, the Romney campaign outsourced to its business allies its message to specific workers. That changed Oct. 25 when Romney himself told Jeep workers, in so many words, that they were going to be fired as a result of Obama's auto bailout. He followed up with ads that continued to imply Jeep would be moving jobs overseas, even after executives at both GM and Chrysler refuted them.
The nearly 3,000 Jeep workers at its two Toledo plants, as well as the suppliers who feed them, woke up to a Toledo Blade story about Romney's announcement. At least a dozen auto workers were concerned enough to call their local union to ask about the situation, said Bruce Baumhower, president of the UAW local 12, which represents the Jeep workers as well as dozens of their suppliers.
On Friday, Romney warned that a second Obama term could bring about a second recession. "The same path means $20 trillion in debt, crippling unemployment, stagnant take-home pay, depressed home values, and a devastated military," he said at a speech in West Allis, Wis. "And unless we change course, we may be looking at another recession."
Baumhower said he's used to hearing politicians promise that the economy will get better under them and would be worse under their opponent -- that, after all, is generally the driving message behind a campaign (along with gay marriage and abortion). But what he saw from Romney was something new.
"I don't think I've ever really seen people running for political office threaten people with their employment," he told HuffPost. "It might be fair game for somebody to say, I can improve the economy. I can grow the jobs market and you'll have more opportunities under me than the other guy. I've heard that. I don't think I've heard anybody come out like this and say: 'You're going to lose your jobs if you don't vote for me.' Pretty ridiculous. But he did."
Baumhower said he reminded the workers that the company was in the middle of a half-billion-dollar investment in expanding production in Ohio, and also that Chrysler had started building cars in China in the '80s -- a plan launched by American Motors, ironically headed at one point by George Romney, Mitt Romney's father.
"I said: 'Don't you remember when the plant's managers, the engineering staff and different folks would go over [to China] for two months at a time to help them launch those plants?' And everybody said: 'Oh yeah,'" Baumhower said, explaining how he eased the workers' worries. "Our members went from fear to anger and people were telling me that it was pretty pitiful that somebody who wants to be commander-in-chief to be stooping down to that to try to win the election."
A private equity executive with a track-record of mass layoffs isn't the most obvious person to entrust with one's job security. One Bain & Co. employee, who worked there after Romney and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that company was so predictable in its consulting advice -- fire people -- that it became an office punchline.
"It was a running joke," he recalled. "'Oh, what are we going to do? We're going to fire people. Of course we are!' It was a joke. That's how we felt about it: 'Okay, let's have some beers on Friday and forget about it.'"