President Obama’s reelection campaign has lost ground in every swing state over the last month as voters took a closer look at Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The most immediate cause for the shift was Romney’s performance in the first debate, which made him look more presidential than the incumbent. However, great catastrophes — whether they be election losses or plane crashes — are seldom traceable to a single cause. There usually are multiple factors at work that have been building up to a climax for months or years. So it is with the parlous state of Mr. Obama’s reelection bid.
The obvious long-term factor weakening the president’s reelection campaign was his inability to stimulate a more vigorous recovery from the recent recession — a failure that now traces back for years. Speaking as a defense analyst, though, I see another factor at work that seems to have been an electoral blind spot for many Democratic candidates in recent decades. Conventional wisdom has it that this year’s election is about the economy rather than defense and foreign policy. I think that’s true, but there’s one part of the political landscape where defense and the economy are the same issue: in the many defense plants and facilities scattered across the nation where people earn their living by working on Pentagon projects.
Over the last several months, I have written a series of commentaries on how important defense spending is to the economies of many swing states. That’s pretty obvious in places like Virginia, which hosts the biggest concentration of military bases in the Western Hemisphere, and aerospace-heavy Colorado. But military spending also influences the vote in less likely places such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. A million people in Ohio — one in eight voters — have ties to the military, including about 30,000 workers employed at the Air Force’s biggest base near Dayton. The biggest public employer in Northeast Pennsylvania is an Army repair depot, and the biggest private employer in Southeast Pennsylvania is the Boeing military helicopter plant south of Philadelphia.
If one or the other presidential candidate were headed for a landslide victory this year, then military-influenced votes might not matter much in the outcome. But when the candidates are separated by razor-thin margins in states likely to decide who gets the most electoral-college votes, military constituencies can determine who wins the White House. Mitt Romney’s campaign understands this, which is why it has been running ads in Ohio for the last two weeks decrying a boneheaded Army plan to close the nation’s last tank plant in Lima for three years and then reopen it. The shutdown wasn’t Obama’s idea, but it is supported by his administration so thousands of workers at the plant and at subcontractor facilities around the state know that if Obama is reelected, they will probably lose their jobs.
The Obama reelection campaign, like the Kerry and Gore campaigns in past years, doesn’t quite seem to get the connection between weapons spending and votes. President Obama has done a masterful job of protecting veteran benefits, but when it comes to reassuring workers at defense plants and bases, he has repeatedly missed the boat. In Virginia, employees at the nation’s biggest shipyard know that Obama plans to cut the number of warships the Navy was going to buy over the next four years. In New Mexico, workers at two sprawling nuclear labs know Obama’s arms-control plans could spell doom for their livelihoods. And in Florida, defense contractors around Orlando know Obama’s military agenda means less work for them (not to mention what his NASA plans mean for nearby Cape Canaveral).
Thus, the Obama Administration has needlessly hurt itself in several states crucial to its reelection prospects. I say needlessly because many of the offending moves made by the Pentagon aren’t going to save money anyway. The plan to temporarily mothball the tank plant, for instance, will end up costing taxpayers more than if it were just kept running until 2017. And killing a submarine planned for construction in fiscal 2014 to balance budgets will just drive up the cost of all the other subs in the five-year plan; after all, you still have to sustain all the workers, facilities and suppliers needed to build subs whether you are buying nine or ten over the next several years. So why run the risk of losing the election in Ohio or Virginia to save almost no money?
You’d think this all would be obvious to the people around Obama. There aren’t many parts of industrial America where organized labor — a key component of the Democratic coalition — is still as strong as it is in the defense industry. So when you see the head of one of the nation’s biggest unions sending a complaining letter to Washington about plans for a tank plant in Ohio right before election day, you know the president’s advisors have overlooked a key factor in his reelection strategy.
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