The relentless partisan divide that has such a firm chokehold on American politics has unfortunately seized upon electric vehicles as its next target. Every day we hear more EV bashing from every organ of the Republican party, from elected officials and Fox News to partisan bloggers.
This EV bashing really bugs me. I’m a Detroit-raised Republican and I love my EVs. We own a BMW iX and a Volkswagen ID.4. They are fast, quiet, brilliantly engineered, and I don’t miss paying a small fortune to the House of Saud just to get around town. (I live in Los Angeles, the home of stratospheric gasoline prices.)
I’ve been a campaign consultant at the top levels of the GOP for more than 30 years. I’ve helped scores of Republican Senators and governors win office: people like John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Engler, Bob Dole, Spencer Abraham, Lamar Alexander, Tommy Thompson, Christie Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yes, I’m a card-carrying Anti-Trumper. But I remain a conservative free market guy and I think EVs are the better solution and should be embraced. I want North American automakers to succeed wildly with EVs, rather than be forced to abandon the future of mobility to Communist China.
So why all the EV-bashing from the Republican party? And what can be done to overcome it? To learn more about both the causes and potential cures for the Republican EV problem, I did what political consultants do, I launched a campaign called The EV Politics Project. Check us out at EVPolitics.org. Our first project was a poll to dive deeply into the EV partisan divide issue with a campaign-style mentality. I called ace GOP pollster David Hill, a longtime friend and fellow car nut. (Hill used to tool around in a DeLorean, so his early move to Tesla years ago makes perfect sense.)
We polled 600 U.S. voters with a household income of $50,000 a year or more. We did that income selection to better reflect the new car market in the U.S. Our sample covers about 67% of the American voting electorate based on the 2020 Presidential election. Surveys this size have a margin of error of 4% in 95 out of 100 cases.
So, what did we learn from our polling? The first discovery was obvious; there is little difference between how Republicans and Democrats see major automotive brands. We asked people to tell us their opinions about different clusters of car brands.
As you can see, there is little difference by partisan ideology in views of American car brands. With Asian brands, we found some difference between Democratic vs Republican consumers, but both groups still hold a net favorable view of Asian car brands, rating them +19 positive over negative with Republicans and +49 with Democrats.
When we asked about “electric car brands,” however, the polarization exploded with a net 55-point difference between Republicans and Democrats. While Democrats are +15 favorable on electric car brands, Republicans are net negative by -40 points. Unlike gas-powered vehicles, EVs have become deeply tied to political partisanship.
Since EVs are too often perceived through a political lens, it is not a surprise they carry a lot of image “loading” along with them. We asked people a series of “agree or disagree” statements about EVs. One of the most telling results came from this statement: “Agree or disagree; EVs are for people who see the world differently than I do.”
On that statement, Republicans agree, and Democrats vehemently disagree. There is a similar split based on a respondent’s view about climate change. Those saying climate change is a serious problem disagree, while those who think climate change is “overhyped” agree that EVs are for people who see the world differently than they do.
Note the difference above between people who have friends with EVs versus those who do not. Peer grouping counts; on every EV question we asked people with friends who drive EVs gave us a more pro-EV response. There is no question that word of mouth can help break down barriers to EVs. Less educated voters – with a high school degree or less – also think EVs are for people who see the world differently than they do. That is mostly driven by perceptions that EVs are expensive luxury vehicles.
Political tribalism aside, when we asked respondents about the concerns they might have about owning an EV, Republicans and Democrats pretty much agreed. The top concern was the price of EVs, followed by concerns about range limits and charging issues. The one outlier from Republicans was concern about EVs using Chinese-made batteries: with 38% citing that as their first or second biggest concern about EVs. There has been a drumbeat about the Chinese battery topic in the Republican news/blog space and it is clearly becoming a “thing” with GOP voters/consumers. The more American-made the batteries and battery recycling are, the better.
When we get to the biggest advantages of owning an EV, the big partisan split reappears. And it reveals the biggest driver of the Republican hostility toward EVs: vastly different opinions about climate change and the environment.
The data above lists the (combined) top two “best reasons” people gave for owning an EV. While both Republicans and Democrats cited “Never paying for gas” as a top reason to own an EV, the ranking each party gave was very different. Democrats ranked “Good for the environment” 11 points higher than “not paying for gas”, making “good for the environment” their first choice Republicans were the opposite, ranking “not paying for gas” 19 points higher than “good for the environment.”
Twenty-six percent of Republicans were opposed in a diehard way, saying “there are no good reasons” to own an EV. Among respondents who are favorable toward Trump, the feelings are even more intense, with 38% saying “there are no good reasons” to own an EV.
We wanted to break respondents out into three groups: pro-EV, open but hesitating toward EVs, and anti-EV. So we asked voters this question: “What best describes you?” The responses we allowed were:
- “I’m seriously considering looking to buy an EV in the next year or two.”
- “I may buy an EV once the problems are worked out and prices are lower.”
- “I will probably never buy an EV.”
Here are their answers, by party identity.
The good news is half of Republicans (56%) and ¾ of Democrats (74%) are “open” to EVs in the longer term. The bad news is that 44% of Republicans are not interested and have their ears pretty much closed regarding EVs. Now look at that question cross-tabbed against the respondents' views on climate change:
In data like this, ratios are helpful: People who say climate change is a serious problem are 2-1 more seriously considering buying an EV in the next one to two years than those who are not concerned much with climate change. People who say climate change is overhyped are, conversely, nearly 2-1 more likely to say they will probably never buy an EV.
I can hear many EV advocates responding to this with perhaps a more profane version of “Well, screw ‘em, they’re just wrong.” I get it. But telling customers they are full of it is not the path to wide-scale EV adoption in the United States. The Republican-leaning auto market is just too big to ignore. The better solution for all concerned—automakers, EV advocates, clean air activists—is to win the larger battle by selling a lot more EVs, period.
Environmentalists can take comfort that most data shows younger Republicans are more concerned about climate issues than older Republicans, so the trend is moving in the pro-climate change action direction since the prime rule of long-term campaign demography is that over time, young voters become all voters. So be patient. The immediate war to win for team EV is to find ways to meet today’s potential GOP EV buyers where they are, and work from there.
And that means a branding reset. Today, EVs are often branded through a heavy green lens. That approach has hit a hard ceiling.
One of the dumbest things marketers can do is spend their money telling people things they already know. Our data is quite clear: if you are worried about climate change and chose your car purchase at least partially to take personal action to combat it, you already know all about EVs. For those would-be EV buyers, the big barriers are cost and range/charging anxiety. (One huge issue with this segment we saw in our data is concerns about Level 2 charging in multi-unit apartment and condo buildings. The multi-unit Level 2 charging infrastructure fix is every bit as important as improving highway fast charging and it should be a much bigger focus in Federal NEVI spending.)
So, if environmental messaging is no longer the answer, what is?
Electric automakers must go back to the basics of selling cars, not what conservatives often call “luxury opinions.” Focus on the vehicle: Fast, fun, no gas. Less regular maintenance needs. All of these attributes are big winners with Republican consumers. Why? They focus on the driving experience not political issues. As Sir Isaac Newton would remind us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The opposite reaction to EVs being so heavily defined as making a big environmental policy statement is, perversely triggering a hostile reaction from many Republican potential EV buyers and holding EV mass adoption back.
Moving the GOP needle among Republicans will take time. But I’ve been impressed by how many closet pro-EV Republicans have reached out to me since we started EVPolitics.org. They are out there; most Republicans like to make their own free-market choices and for most consumers, once they try an EV, most people really like them.
Additionally, automakers need to prioritize actually experiencing these cars, and dealers need to do a lot more in the way of education as well. Part of the mission we have at the EV Politics Project is to share our data with automakers and help them understand how to better reach the half of the car and truck market that the anti-EV political division has pushed away.
At EVPolitics.org we will also be working hard this year to push back on GOP disinformation about EVs. We do not want to see EVs and pro-EV policy become a punching bag during what is going to be a bitter presidential election.
We also plan to turn the tables on GOP EV-bashers by taking advantage of the political dynamics of the 2024 election. We plan to go on the offense about the huge EV-related investment in American manufacturing jobs, something that so far disproportionately benefits red states, and the “swing states” that will ultimately decide the 2024 election.
Sixty-eight percent of November’s swing-state Electoral College votes will be cast by states with massive new investments and new job creation in the EV space, including Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Nevada. We plan to make attacks on EVs in those states into a bread-and-butter jobs issue, which smart politicians will attack at their own peril.
I’m only scratching the surface of our data here, but I’ll finish with a little encouragement about Republicans and EVs in the longer term. We asked our respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: “EVs are the future, and one day I’ll probably drive one.” Nearly half of Republicans (44%) agreed. Not perfect, but it’s a good start.
Now we should get to work.
Mike Murphy is a veteran GOP political consultant who has advised Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and dozens of other Governors, Senators and Members of Congress. He is also co-director of the USC Center for the Political Future and co-host of the popular Hacks On Tap podcast.