Before a dinner inside one of Ford Motor Co.'s design studios last week, CEO Alan Mulally gushed over how inspired he is by Barack Obama. "I like his campaign speech where he says, 'We're choosing hope over fear'," said Mulally, who is presiding over painful cutbacks at the struggling automaker. "It's sounds like what we're trying to do at Ford." Does that mean Mulally supports Obama for president? He wouldn't say. Has he contributed to any presidential candidates? "It's public record," he said. "You can check." We did. He hadn't by the end of September 2007.
When it comes to picking a presidential candidate in Tuesday's Michigan primary, what's an auto exec to do? The Republicans turn a deaf ear to Detroit's pleas for government help with their crushing health-care costs. The Democrats could turn up the heat even more on global warming. After taking a bipartisan whipping last month on the energy bill—which boosted gas-mileage requirements 40 percent despite Detroit's opposition—America's automakers appear about as popular as Big Tobacco. They have few friends in Washington and even fewer, it would appear, on the campaign trail. It's little wonder, then, that no clear consensus candidate has emerged among the Big Wheels in Motown. "The auto industry feels like it doesn't have any friends among the candidates," says Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell. "It's just a matter of who is the least offensive and who will be least hard on us."
The natural choice would seem to be native son Mitt Romney. After all, his father, George, was more than just a popular Michigan governor--he was an auto executive as CEO of American Motors in the 1950s. And indeed some of the auto elite have lined up behind Romney. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner contributed $2,100 to Romney's campaign last year, according to an analysis of federal campaign records for NEWSWEEK conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics. And several members of the Fisher family, automotive pioneers from old-money Grosse Pointe, combined to give Romney more than $15,000. Prominent auto-supplier execs gave to Romney, too. That explains why individual contributions from the Detroit auto crowd totaled $68,350 for Republican candidates and only $26,100 for Democrats through the first nine months of last year, according to federal records. Among all Michigan contributors, Romney has taken in $1,888,101 to John McCain's $899,308, Hillary Clinton's $595,465 and Barack Obama's $473,160.
And yet, that's not putting Romney over the top in Michigan. A new poll out Jan. 11 showed McCain with a 7-point lead over Romney. The poll, by Mitchell Interactive, found that Democrats and independents—who gave McCain the 2000 Michigan primary over George W. Bush—are defecting from a mostly meaningless Democratic primary to vote for the Arizona senator in the GOP race. Nearly one third of those planning to vote in Tuesday's Republican primary identified themselves as Democrats, while another 16 percent said they were independents. McCain captures both groups handily over Romney while splitting the Republican vote. "Mitt Romney has been campaigning in Michigan for two years; this shouldn't even be a competitive state for him," says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "He should be the assumed winner, but he's not."
What's holding the hometown boy back? There's a sense that the polished politician is pandering when he promised in the Republican debate last week to bring back those thousands of auto jobs Michigan has lost. The pollsters say McCain scored more points with his tough talk on the stump in Michigan, saying: "I know how difficult the economy is here in Michigan. I've got to look you in the eye and tell you some of those jobs aren't coming back." In a state that has had the highest unemployment in the nation for the last two years, McCain's message was viewed as refreshingly honest. "The automakers here have already said those jobs aren't coming back," says Sarpolus. "So he's being honest about something we've been discussing here in Michigan for years."
Obama, though, learned that if you talk too tough in Motown, it can backfire. In a blistering speech to the Detroit Economic Club last May, Obama castigated the carmakers for failing to engineer fuel-efficient cars. "Even as they've shed thousands of jobs and billions in profits over the last few years," Obama told a stunned audience, "they've continued to reward failure with lucrative bonuses for CEOs."
Those CEOs snapped their fat wallets shut and hadn't given anything to Obama through September. In fact, GM vice president Debbie Dingell, wife of powerful Democratic Congressman John Dingell, gave $1,000 to Hillary Clinton and $250 to John Edwards, but nothing to Obama through September, federal records show. There is no record of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick giving anything to Obama—including his endorsement. After Obama's speech, Kilpatrick told NEWSWEEK: "He left a lot to be desired with that message."
Now, though, Obama isn't even on the Michigan primary ballot. Only Clinton choose to remain on the ballot after the Democratic Party punished Michigan for pulling its primary forward in violation of party rules. Still, there is a stealth way to vote for Obama. If more than 15 percent of primary voters mark "uncommitted" on their ballot, delegates not bound to any candidate could go to the Democratic National Convention and endorse whomever they want. That means Clinton, despite essentially being the only horse in the race, could still be embarrassed in Michigan. "Hillary can lose by winning in Michigan if she doesn't break 55 or 60 percent," says Sarpolus.
In the Mitchell poll, Clinton gets 44 percent of the vote, while "uncommitted" takes 26 percent. Among African-Americans, Clinton wins only 20 percent of the vote, while "uncommitted" lands 47 percent. Unusual as it sounds; African-American community leaders have begun a get-out-the-vote campaign called Detroiters for Uncommitted Voters. Democratic Rep. John Conyers and his wife, Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, are airing ads encouraging voters to make sure they show up at the polls Tuesday to cast their ballot for no one. Since Clinton has promised not to campaign in Michigan as part of her party's "punishment," the Conyers campaign effectively means that only Obama is getting support on the airwaves.
Despite the Democrats ham-handed handling of their Michigan primary, they appear to be in the ascent among Detroit's automakers. In the last presidential-election cycle, Republicans took in nearly two thirds of donations from political action committees and individuals at GM, Ford and Chrysler. This time around, the political pendulum has swung the other way: GM's political donations are split 50-50 between the parties, while 60 percent of Ford's funds have gone to Democrats and 55 percent of Chrysler's contributions have gone Blue, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, there's not much passion behind the political giving. It's more a mood of resignation, which explains why McCain's downbeat realism resonates. After all, there's a recession looming, and Toyota is still trouncing the not-so-Big Three. That fills Detroiters with a lot more fear than hope for their future, no matter what any candidate promises.