Your Car: Politics on Wheels
NY Times ^ | April 1, 2005 | JOHN TIERNEY
It has always been tempting to think you can figure out who a person is and what he thinks by what he drives. That subject was raised recently by Chely Wright in her country and western hit, "Bumper of My S.U.V.," in which she tells of a "lady in a minivan" giving her a vulgar hand gesture for driving a car with a Marines bumper sticker:
"Does she think she knows what I stand for/Or the things that I believe/Just by looking at a sticker for the U.S. Marines/On the bumper of my S.U.V.?"
The lady in the minivan might not know, but some of the finest minds in market research think they do. By analyzing new-car sales, surveying car owners and keeping count of political bumper stickers, they are identifying the differences between Democratic cars and Republican ones.
Among their findings: buyers of American cars tend to be Republican - except, for some reason, those who buy Pontiacs, who tend to be Democrats. Foreign-brand compact cars are usually bought by Democrats - but not Mini Coopers, which are bought by almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. And Volvos may not actually represent quite what you think.
How valuable is this information? "I think it's fun to talk about," the political analyst James Carville said, "but I mean, you see a guy in a pickup truck with a rifle and a Confederate flag, and you know how he's going to vote anyway." But upon further reflection Mr. Carville acknowledged the value of the surveys. "It actually does have some merit, especially when used in conjunction with other information about consumer habits. It can be a very accurate predictor."
Last year, the Republican National Committee applied data supplied by Scarborough Research, a New York market research firm, to a range of leisure-time and consumer activities to find where it could reach potential voters with advertising. Part of Scarborough's effort was to survey 200,000 car owners about their political affiliations.
Scarborough found that Porsche owners identified themselves as Republican more often than owners of any other cars, with 59 percent calling themselves Republicans, 27 percent Democrats and the rest either calling themselves independents or declining to answer. Jaguars and Land Rovers also registered as very "Republican" vehicles.
Scarborough also determined that Volvos were the most "Democratic" cars, by 44 to 32 percent, followed by Subarus and Hyundais. But although a lot of old Volvos on the road are driven by Democrats, the customers in Volvo showrooms no longer fit the old stereotype, according to a survey of 163,000 new-car buyers last year that was conducted by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore.
As Volvo's advertising has stressed performance in addition to safety, more and more Republicans are buying Volvos. The CNW survey last year showed that Democratic buyers of Volvo cars outnumbered Republicans by only 32 percent to 27 percent.
"Volvos have become more plush and bourgeois, which is a Republican thing to be," said Mickey Kaus, a dual expert in politics and cars as the author of the Kausfiles and Gearbox columns for Slate. "Subaru is the new Volvo - that is, it is what Volvos used to be: trusty, rugged, inexpensive, unpretentious, performs well, maybe a bit ugly. You don't buy it because you want to show you have money; you buy it because you have college-professor values."
The CNW survey, which measured political affiliation not just by make but also by model, found that a Jeep Grand Cherokee S.U.V. was more than half again as likely to be bought by a Republican than by a Democrat, at 46 percent to 28. Among Hummer buyers, the Republican-to-Democrat ratio was a whopping 52 to 23.
According to CNW's figures, staunch Democrats drive S.U.V.'s too, but they tend to prefer smaller, foreign-made ones. Republicans generally like them bigger and American-made, or at least bearing the name of an American company, even if they were built elsewhere.
The survey also found that minivans skewed blue, just as Chely Wright surmised in her song. At first glance, this might seem odd, because Republican car buyers tended to have more children - 3.5 on average, versus 1.7 for the Democratic buyers. Explaining this apparent contradiction offers a look into the increasing exactitude marketers seem to be applying to the question of who drives what.
"You might think with all the kids, they'd want the practicality of a minivan," said Art Spinella, the president of CNW. But practicality was not the Republican customer's highest priority, as Mr. Spinella's company discovered by tracking the customers throughout the buying process.
"There is a certain resistance that male new-car buyers have to minivans even in a household with two or three kids," Mr. Spinella explained. "For the most part, red-state households are more male-dominated when it comes to decision-making for a vehicle. In blue states, it's more of a joint decision-making process." Because the Democratic women get more of a say in the decision, their families end up with more minivans than S.U.V.'s.
The Democrats also tend to consider a wider range of cars before buying. "In red states, there's more affinity to specific brands or loyalty to the same brand they had before," Mr. Spinella said. "A person in a red state will start with an average of 2.5 vehicles on the shopping list. In the blue states the average is 6."
The blue-staters, not surprisingly, are a lot more likely to put hybrid cars on their list: buyers of the Toyota Prius hybrid were Democrats by a 35 to 22 percent. Democrats in general are more fond of smaller cars (the Ford Escort and Dodge Neon both skewed blue by about 34 to 20), although energy efficiency is hardly the only reason. Besides having fewer children, Democrats tend to be younger, less affluent and more likely to live in cities where small cars are easier to park.
Some of these differences have more to do with geography than personal politics. Democrats are concentrated in port cities with more links to Europe and Asia, making them more open to foreign car companies. Republicans are more likely to be living in the heartland, where there's room for bigger cars and a tradition of loyalty to the American cars built in nearby factories.
But car buyers are also responding to the political images that come with some cars. Some foreign car companies have marketed cars as environmentally friendly, and some have at times focused on parts of the Democratic base. Saab and Subaru were the first and most visible to aim advertising at gay drivers.
Midsize and large American cars skew Republican, and so, of course, do big American pickup trucks. That may have something to do with American car companies marketing themselves through one of the great symbols of Republicanism, Nascar, which is enormously popular in the red states.
"Nascar has an American-made-only requirement for cars and a variety of other rules that discourage foreign makers from competing," said Steve Sailer, a conservative journalist who has analyzed the red-blue divide. "Toyota has dipped its toe into Nascar's truck-racing series with its American-made trucks, but there isn't a lot of demand for Japanese participation.
"In truth, a lot of fans would be sore about ending the all-American monopoly. Nascar has become a covert ethnic-pride celebration for red-state whites of Northern European descent."
All surveys found that nothing is more Republican than a big pickup. "The No. 1 vehicle bought by millionaires is the Ford F-Series pickup truck," Mr. Spinella said. "They're farmers, ranchers, contractors, independent businesspeople. They basically work for themselves and they have substantial assets."
The Saab is a Democratic car, according to both CNW and Scarborough, which found that Saab owners were about twice as likely to be Democrats. It's an upscale car an affluent Democrat can drive without feeling guiltily ostentatious while also reveling in a different sort of status symbol, said the president of Scarborough, Bob Cohen.
"The Saab owner is not going after the obvious status symbol like a BMW," Mr. Cohen said. "He wants to make a statement that he's in a small group with specialized knowledge who don't go for a safe choice like BMW, because he can get a better deal with a Saab."
A less affluent version of that car buyer might go for a Saturn, the offbeat brand of choice for aficionados who skew heavily Democratic, by 39 to 11 among last year's car buyers. Mr. Kaus says they appeal to Democrats because they are "clunky, Earth Shoe-like cars."
SATURN owners were also prone to put their Democratic loyalties on display, at least according to a count undertaken by Political Bumpers, which was billed as "an extremely unscientific" project undertaken near the end of the presidential campaign last year.
Volunteers counted more than 1,300 bumper stickers in a half dozen states from Sept. 20 to Oct. 31 and came up with results (www.laze.net/bumpers) that roughly jibed with the much larger market-research surveys. Like the larger surveys, the Political Bumpers totals added up to within a couple of percentage points of the 51-percent-to-48 result of the 2004 presidential election.
The Political Bumpers spotters, who recorded bumper stickers in favor of or against any of the candidates in the 2004 election, found that the drivers of pickup trucks and large S.U.V.'s were overwhelmingly right-leaning. But the leader of the project, Ryan MacMichael, of Leesburg, Va., said his biggest surprise was the pronounced Democratic skew of bumper stickers on economy cars (71 percent were left-leaning) and station wagons (67 percent).
The most left-leaning models with at least a dozen sightings in Mr. MacMichael's project were the Honda Civic (80-20 left-leaning), Toyota Corolla (78-19) and Toyota Camry (74-26). The list of most right-leaning was led by another Toyota, but a midsize S.U.V., the Toyota 4Runner (86-14), followed by the Ford Expedition (76-24) and Ford F-150 (75-25).
To Mr. Spinella, those bumper stickers merely provided further proof of the most fundamental difference between the two parties.
"Democrats buy cars," he said. "Republicans buy trucks."