It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the auto bailout will be central to Campaign 2012’s argument over government and the economy, and Pew Research releases some striking numbers:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 8-12 among 1,501 adults, finds that 56% say the loans the government made to GM and Chrysler were mostly good for the economy, while 38% say the loans to the automakers were mostly bad for the economy.
Opinion about the auto loans has reversed since October 2009. At that time, just 37% said the loans were mostly good for the economy while 54% expressed negative views. Republicans remain more skeptical than Democrats about the GM and Chrysler loans, but Republican support for the loans has nearly doubled since 2009 — from 23% then to 44% today.

The partisan breakdown also finds that independents think the auto bailout was good for the economy by a wide margin, 54-40. Even moderate/liberal Republicans agree, 57-39. And Pew tells me that non-college-degree whites — a key swing consistuency that will be pivotal in the Rust Belt states — also agree, 51-40.

Romney, who may not be the ideal candidate to limit Obama’s losses among that constituency to begin with, recently dismissed the auto-bailout as “crony capitalism.” And the anti-government fundamentalism the GOP primary apparently requires from the candidates has forced them into ever more elaborate contortions in search of some way, any way, to portray the use of government money to bail out an entire industry as a failure.

Yet judging by these numbers, here’s an area where core swing constituencies seem to agree that government intervention in the economy was a good thing.

In fairness, Gallup today has far different findings, with Americans disapproving of the auto rescue by 51-44. But the question uses the dirty word “bailout,” and only asks if people “approve or disapprove” of it, whereas Pew asks more directly whether people think it was good for the economy. Still, we need more data to determine how public opinion is shaping up on this.

By the way, this Pew finding on the stimulus is also interesting:

The public is now divided over Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, which Congress passed in 2009. Overall, 37% approve of the legislation and 41% disapprove, while 23% express no opinion. Two years ago, 38% approved of the stimulus, while nearly half (49%) disapproved; 13% had no opinion.

The percentage who approve of it remains low, but the number who disapprove has dropped, moving over into the “no opinion” category; perhaps people are reassessing. This, combined with the numbers on the auto bailout, suggest that the improving economy may well color the public’s views of Obama’s policies across the board, also potentially an important dynamic.


UPDATE: Think Progress has put together an interesting infographic on the auto-bailout’s impact on the industry.