Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa: Those are the five states with the largest proportion of workers in manufacturing, according to U.S. Census figures. They all voted for Obama in 2008. And four of those five—with the exception of Indiana, which is leaning Republican—are considered toss-ups in this year's presidential election.
The resurgence of manufacturing jobs is sure to be a key storyline in the presidential election. The White House has taken ownership of the industry's newfound strength, repeatedly touting that after decades of job losses, manufacturing has gained 404,000 jobs on President Obama's watch, most of it related to auto and machinery production. Keeping those jobs coming—and convincing voters of his part in creating those jobs—will be of critical importance to Obama's reelection efforts. But if those jobs grow, the Republican candidate will be hard-pressed to fight back.
It is undeniable that manufacturing in the U.S. is seeing renewed growth. The recent job gains have given the manufacturing industry "a great deal of optimism," says Brad Holcomb, chair of the Manufacturing Business Survey Committee at the Institute for Supply Management, which releases the monthly manufacturing purchasing managers' index. "I won't even say 'cautious optimism' anymore—it's really just kicking in that, barring some global event, we're going to continue to grow over the next few months and this year," says Holcomb.
However, exactly how much credit President Obama can take for the latest bump in manufacturing jobs is debatable. For example, even though he often touts the success of the auto company bailout, emergency loans to U.S. auto companies began in 2008, under President Bush. And though General Motors has strongly recovered with the aid of that money, Ford Motor Company has bounced back from a $14.6 billion loss in 2008, despite taking no bailout funds.
It is also difficult to draw a direct line between Obama's efforts and other factors that have also contributed to the rise in manufacturing jobs. Falling labor costs in the U.S., increased quality of American manufactured goods, and favorable exchange rates have all also contributed to manufacturing growth, says Chad Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers.
In addition, there are doubts about the president's latest manufacturing initiative, which aims to create tax incentives for manufacturers who create factory jobs in the U.S. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who endorsed Obama in 2008, expressed his doubts about the plan in a Huffington Post commentary last week. Reich flatly stated that "American manufacturing isn't coming back," noting weaknesses elsewhere in the industry, like declining wages, not to mention the fact that there are still 5.5 million fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2000.
Even though fewer than one-fifth of the workers in any given state work in manufacturing, according to 2010 Census figures, emphasizing manufacturing gains can be effective in gaining the favor of all voters.
"I think it's effective as long as the jobs continue to come," says Jennifer Lawless, associate professor in American University's Department of Government. Growth in manufacturing, she says, "boosts the economy in those states [where manufacturing is a key industry], and it's appealing to all of the voters in those swing states."
Emphasizing manufacturing is particularly important for the president, says Lawless, because many workers in manufacturing are "blue-collar Democrats," with loyalties that are not necessarily tied to socially liberal values. This means that being able to make a strong jobs argument will be an important tactic if Obama is to win over these voters, to whom Republicans might otherwise appeal.
Of course, this is all contingent upon sustained job growth. If manufacturing sees sustained gains, says Lawless, it may be difficult for Republicans to make a strong counter-argument.