Eight months ago, Kathleen Wilmink was a single mother, waitressing at night and coding fees for a medical billing company by day. Her pay: $10 an hour. Today she works 12-hour shifts at a steel plant, tending a ladle that pours 300 tons of red-hot liquid metal into molds. It is a sooty, sweaty task. "We wear leather gloves," she said, "so our hands don't catch on fire." Her pay: $21 an hour plus incentives, bonuses and generous medical benefits.
Wilmink's new job is good news for President Barack Obama. ArcelorMittal, the global steel giant, is hiring again at the century-old mill that straddles the Cuyahoga River. Orders are up, thanks in part to a revival of the U.S. automobile industry for which the Obama administration claims credit.
In recent decades the white working class has steadily morphed from blue to red: Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama all lost the group to GOP opponents. Two years ago the midterm elections marked a landslide. Hammered by the recession and revved up by the Tea Party, white working-class voters - men and women without college degrees who earn middle-income wages - swung Republican by a stunning 30 points across the country. For many, change hasn't come fast enough, dampening hope. They remain impatient for prosperity.
In Ohio, these voters, who make up more than half of the electorate, are showing little enthusiasm for either the president or Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee. As of this week, white working-class voters across the Rust Belt leaned toward Romney, with 44 percent of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll saying they would vote for the Republican if the election were held today, versus 30 percent for Obama. (For purposes of the poll, the Rust Belt includes Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and parts of New York and Pennsylvania.)
That is a far narrower spread than between GOP and Democratic candidates in the midterms. But if the president is to make headway with this group, he'll need more voters like Wilmink, 29. "Obama is for jobs," said the newly minted steelworker. "He is eager to get the economy going again."
ANXIOUS, ANGRY AND UNDECIDED
In 2008, Obama carried Ohio by five percentage points against John McCain. He captured other industrial belt states, too, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. Even Indiana, which had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, narrowly embraced Obama's message of "hope and change."
This year the wobbly economy offers Romney a powerful opening, but he has struggled to relate to blue-collar voters. That's hardly surprising. His fortune is estimated at $250 million, he once penned a New York Times op-ed headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," and he regularly complains about "union stooges."
Both campaigns unleashed ads this month aimed at working-class voters in battleground states. In Obama's two-minute TV spot, steelworkers blamed Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney once ran, for profiting from the bankruptcy of a Kansas City, Missouri mill, calling the Republican "a job destroyer."
Romney responded with a 60-second Web video praising Bain's investment in Steel Dynamics Inc, an Indiana company that grew from 1,400 to 6,000 employees, describing its success as "the American dream." Amid these conflicting scenarios, a swath of blue-collar voters remains angry, anxious and undecided. Many supported former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the grandson of a coal miner, in Ohio's Republican primary, which Romney won by less than a percentage point. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, fewer than a fifth of manufacturing workers approve of Obama's overall job performance, with almost 40 percent expressing "mixed feelings."
"YOU PUSH A BUTTON"
On a spring Saturday, members of the United Steelworkers bowling league crowded into Cloverleaf Lanes south of Cleveland. An American flag hung on the wall. Budweiser flowed freely. T-shirts sported slogans such as "Steelworkers Forever" and "Tough Enough." In the 1990s the league had 44 teams. Today, after corporate bankruptcies, consolidations, and restructuring, there are 17.
Jerry Roop, 52, worked for 30 years as a skilled tool and dye maker before losing his job in 2007 when his employer, Metaldyne, moved some operations to China. Since then he's been laid off twice by other companies. Like so many factory workers, Roop is a victim of automation. Once he made $90,000 a year. Now he earns $50,000 at a plant that makes bearings for windmills.