Politics Counts: The Auto Bailout and the Michigan Vote

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Was the federal government’s 2009 auto industry aid a bailout or a lifeboat? That may depend on where you live.

No one likes the idea that the federal government pumped billions into General Motors and Chrysler, but if you live in, say, the Great Lakes region, you probably see the issue a bit differently than they do elsewhere. How differently? We’re going to get an early peek at that question on Tuesday in Michigan’s Republican presidential primary.

The auto bailout could complicate Michigan’s electoral terrain for the GOP. Both of the current Republican front-runners, former MassachusettsGov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have said they opposed it. And while that would seem to make the issue a wash in Michigan, that’s not the whole story.

The big news Tuesday night, of course, will be who emerges from the contests in Michigan and Arizona with the momentum. The see-saw nominating campaign has been the story in nearly all the votes so far, but watch Tuesday night’s results closely and you might get a sense of whether the GOP is looking at a big problem in November.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the auto industry, not just in Michigan, but in the Great Lakes region as a whole. There are about 8,200 manufacturing facilities affiliated with the auto industry in the United States, from motor vehicle assembly to parts.  And more than 1,500 of them – 18% – are in Michigan and Ohio (which holds its primary vote on March 6), according to data from the Census Bureau.

Those auto manufacturing facilities, predominantly for American auto companies, are spread all around those states and employ more than 200,000 people.

And remember it’s not the just people employed in auto manufacturing that matter. It’s the engineers and technical people. It’s the salespeople. And it is all of their spouses, friends and neighbors. There are hundreds of local businesses and schools that depend on a healthy auto sector.  When you think about the industry that way, you get a sense of its influence on the region.

And, important for Mr. Romney, those auto jobs in the Great Lakes region are most heavily based in the wealthy Monied Burbs (in biege on the map below), which Patchwork Nation has found are the former Massachusetts governor's electoral base.

Read the rest of this week's POLITICS COUNTS column on the Wall Street Journal's website.