2012 has been a crazy election cycle filled with gaffes, unpredictable debates (Big Bird, really?), super PACs, and even some real substance along the way (debatable). But, as we wind down with just two short weeks to go, what's really going to decide things? Surprisingly, the math says it just might be Obama's support of the auto bailout that wins him the election. So, before you "call me crazy", let's lay out some facts.
1. Ohio will likely be the state that determines the election.
As of today, Obama's electoral vote tally stands at 237 in states where he has ~90+ percent chance of winning (according to The New York Times' Nate Silver). The nine toss-up states remaining, (FL: 29, OH: 18, NC: 15, VA: 13, WI: 10, CO: 6, IA: 6, NV: 6, NH: 4) total 117 electoral votes, of which Obama needs to secure 33 in order to clinch the presidency. If you believe the current "leanings" in the polls (clearly very much is uncertain and within the margin of error), Romney could conceivably take Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia (57 electoral votes). This would leave 60 electoral votes up for grabs, and illustrates the importance of Ohio -- for example, if Obama wins Ohio he would only need to capture Wisconsin and one of Colorado, Iowa, or Nevada to win. However, if Obama loses Ohio in this scenario he would lose the election.
2. Among the issues that matter most to Ohioans, the auto bailout has an enormous influence.
Ohio is the state with the second-highest number of auto related workers in the country, only behind Michigan, with one in eight Ohioans holding an auto job. In addition, numerous analyses have indicated that the bailout "saved" ~1 million jobs in the sector. It's unsurprising, then, that it ranks among the top issues for most Ohio voters. Recognizing this fact, the Obama campaign released an ad over the weekend, highlighting the fact that Romney did not support the bailout back in 2009. What's more convincing is that Obama continues to have a slight edge in polling (~1-3 percent advantage in the latest polls), endorsements (The Plain Dealer and The Akron Beacon Journal endorsed him over the weekend), and the UAW on his side (they get a paid day of vacation on election day to vote).
3. Romney and Obama both have very clear (and surprisingly unwavering) positions on the auto bailout.
In Romney's November 2008 op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt", he clearly articulated his stance against the auto bailout, and has continued to stand by it ever since. Team Romney has repeatedly and frustratingly tried to explain that his position wasn't to actually let the auto companies fail, but rather to have them work through a managed bankruptcy like any other private company. Either way, the voters see the word "bankruptcy" and associate it with slashing jobs. Obama on the other hand, was a supporter of the bailout from the beginning, championing the effort even before officially taking office. On Meet the Press in December of 2008, he called the auto industry "the backbone of American manufacturing", and argued, "it's not an option to simply allow it to collapse."
4. The auto bailout reinforces the broader narrative Obama is trying to drive (that he is looking out for the middle class, while Romney is a profit-centric job cutter).
Perhaps nothing highlights the differences in voters' perceptions of each of the candidates better than their positions on the auto bailout. For Obama, it reinforces the message that he is fighting for the middle class, and will use the government as a tool to achieve this outcome. Today, he says with great pride that the bailout saved "millions" of jobs across the country, and further solidifies his argument by linking the bailout to Ohio's unemployment rate being lower than the national average (currently at 7.2 percent). Fairly or unfairly, it provides Obama an opportunity to further define Romney as an unemotional businessman who wanted to fire your uncle; a man concerned with the bottom-line first, and people second. However, in a small way it reinforces Romney's conservative credentials as a promoter of small government and free markets. In fact, the treasury now estimates the bailout will cost the government $25.1 billion.
Every election has a number of unique factors and influences, and often times we let the broader narrative influence our perception of how the election will shake out. But, in doing the electoral math and looking at the few microcosms that will determine the election outcome, it's a lot less complicated than it appears. For 2012, Ohio will likely be the state that decides it all, and Obama being on the right side of the auto bailout certainly boosts his chances. How ironic, that a Bush-era executive order could be the deciding factor on Election Day?