Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In the ‘80s, it was the politics of dancing. In the ‘90s, the politics of caring. Today, in bailout nation, we have the politics of driving.

The Volvo-driving liberal and the redneck in a Chevy pickup are long-held stereotypes. But a map of car ownership - produced by R.L. Polk & Co. - overlaid on the electoral map reveals the surprising extent to which how we vote corresponds with what we drive.

Blue-staters on each coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle and from Boston to the District, are the most likely to drive foreign cars. Domestic brands have their highest levels of market share in the mostly conservative interior of the country.

In some blue states - where a Democrat has won at least three of the last four presidential contests - foreign cars have as much as 60 percent of the market, as measured by vehicle registrations. It is mostly in red states - Republican strongholds - where domestic cars have 74 percent of the market or more.

This pattern holds in 36 states and the District.

The three politically purple states - those that have evenly split the last four elections - strongly prefer domestic cars.

Be careful with that party label, though - and check out the union label.

Its true that liberal Democrats are the least likely group to consider an American car, according to a recent Gallup poll. And conservative Republicans clearly prefer domestic cars. But one species turns the car-buying political spectrum inside out: conservative Democrats. The commitment of this group to buy American cars is so strong that conservative Republicans look downright bicoastal by comparison.

Fourteen states depart from the pattern, and five of them are in the Midwest. Michigan likes its politics just like its football: deep blue. But the seat of the domestic auto industry sees red about foreign cars. Import-driving visitors should consider renting a Big Three model at the state line.

Wisconsin also votes staunchly blue and drives dark red. A lot of Green Bay Packers fans work in the auto industry.

Liberal Minnesota does not have a substantial auto work force. But Midwesterners of any persuasion tend strongly to drive American cars. Dark-blue Illinois and light-blue Iowa heavily favor Detroit makes.

Maine, Pennsylvania and New Mexico - all Democratic states - have among the highest levels of domestic auto share.

In six Republican-leaning states, domestic cars have their second-lowest level of market share - as low as 55 percent. (R.L. Polk divides market share into four quartiles, with the lowest representing domestic share from 40 percent to 55 percent and the highest from 74 percent to 86 percent.)

Polling illustrates how car preferences are more of a liberal-conservative issue than a party-line matter.

Twenty-two percent of liberal Democrats say they would never consider an American car, according to a recent Gallup poll, the highest of any group. Among conservative Republicans, 14 percent would only consider a foreign car. But moderate to conservative Democrats and conservative independents put both groups to shame: Only 6 percent of the former and 8 percent of the latter said they would not consider a Detroit car.

“Liberals are the least likely to buy American, but I think you also have to look a little deeper to see that a higher percentage of those liberals would buy only American - more than would buy only foreign,” said Roger Simmermaker, author of “How Americans Can Buy American: The Power of Consumer Patriotism.”

Twenty-seven percent of liberal Democrats say they would only consider a U.S. car., but that, too, is the lowest of the five political groups broken out by Gallup.

(The number of respondents who identified themselves as liberal Republicans was too small to justify its own category, Gallup said.)

As fun as it is to color by numbers, a variety of factors correlate to car-buying decisions: Age, household income and geography all exert a strong influence, according to Gallup.

But the type of driving you do may play the biggest role.

“If you’re looking at more fuel-efficient vehicles, smaller vehicles, [imports] have the edge,” said Bruce M. Belzowski of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “If you look at people who need a larger vehicle, who need towing capacity, they probably go more toward the Big Three.”

Behind the stereotypes are millions of individual decisions. A conservative in a BMW is not a contradiction, nor is a liberal in a pickup - without the NRA sticker, of course.

And now that Toyota is making pickups in Republican Texas, all bets could be off.

You can bet, though, that made-in-Texas doesn’t cut it in Michigan.

Though thousands of Americans work for foreign car makers in the United States, it is Ford, GM and Chrysler that do the most for the country, said Mr. Simmermaker, who also runs the Web site howtobuyamerican.com.

“From the people they employ to the retirees and dependents they support to the fact that they buy most of their parts in the U.S., any way you want to look at it, they have done right by the American economy,” he said, adding that both liberals and conservatives bear some blame for their current troubles.

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