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'It's become a localized rule': Auto industry still plays a role in elections for Midwestern voters

By BROOKS SUTHERLAND • Oct 6, 2019 at 9:36 AM

As 12 Democrats running for president prepare to take the stage for a fourth debate, this one in Ohio, voters are combing through their every characteristic, picking through flaws and attempting to determine what they want to be on each candidate’s record.

For many, climate change, gun reform, the economy, and health care are at the forefront.

But do voters — especially those in Midwestern battleground states where the auto industry is king — pay attention to what kind of car a candidate drives, or shows up to events in?

While the age of demanding politicians represent — and drive — domestic cars has gradually faded, voters in Detroit and Toledo appear to pay close attention to how people running for office treat the auto industry.

While such issues have waned in importance on the national stage, political experts said, voters interviewed by The Blade in downtown Detroit and Toledo said they place importance on what candidates have to say about the auto industry, even as it may be less crucial today than it was 30 years ago to see them driving or riding in cars made from the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors). Being a strong auto industry backer is even more important for candidates seeking local office, voters said.

Stuart Cubbon, a personal injuries lawyer in Toledo, said candidates in Lucas County should “absolutely” own an American car. He also believes presidential candidates seeking to win votes in the Midwest should bring special attention to the auto industry.

“We live in America, I think they should drive American cars,” said Cubbon, a Democratic voter. “Especially in Lucas County, the auto industry is vital to our community and our economy. I think if everybody in America that used to drive American cars was still driving American cars, our economy would be far better. So, I feel strongly about that.”

He added: “There are more issues than just that, but I wouldn’t think it would be wise for a Democratic candidate to drive into Toledo in a foreign car.”

American cars lose steam

While voters in the Big Three strongholds of southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio spoke passionately about the importance of the auto industry to their politics, the previously nationwide notion that candidates need to be seen in an American car has lost a lot of steam over the years, Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said.

“It used to be a national issue when I started doing this 35 years ago,” Ferson, a Massachusetts native, said. “It was a fireable offense for a staffer to put a candidate in a foreign car. ... It’s much looser now.”

Ferson contends that politicians can show up to rallies in a foreign car, in the current political climate, without any repercussions. But Detroit, he advises, is one place where a candidate should at least fake it.

“It’s become a localized rule,” he added. “Kamala Harris can drive an electric car for stops in California. But, I would think being in Detroit, she better pull up in a Chevy or a Ford.”

Ferson says changes in politics have contributed to a “looser” protection of the idea to “Buy American,” which started with an act in 1933. Today other issues are far more important for voters, Mr. Ferson said.

Using U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) — one of the two authors of the Green New Deal resolution — as an example, Ferson insisted that if  Markey were to show up to an event in a Ford Expedition, many voters “would question his commitment to climate change,” rather than applaud his decision to drive an American-made Ford.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has gone as far as vowing to not only drive electric cars himself, but has pledged that he would replace the entire fleet of presidential motorcade cars with electric cars, should he win the White House.

“I’ll do better, the entire White House motor pool will be electric,” the tech entrepreneur said last month at a climate change forum hosted by MSNBC and Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

More pressure locally

Local politics, however, can be different, said David B. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron.

He said local Midwestern politicians receive more pressure from United Auto Workers to drive American cars than presidential candidates, who often get in rental cars to arrive at events. Local candidates, especially if they are from the Democratic party, who he says seek backing from unions more aggressively, won’t receive an endorsement if they drive foreign cars.

For presidential candidates, however, their rhetoric about the auto industry does hold weight, Cohen said. He added that a candidate who doesn’t talk about the auto industry in Midwestern states is committing “campaign malpractice.”

“They’re paying attention to rhetoric,” he said of Midwestern voters. “They want to hear about the Lordstown GM plant and about things that affect them. They aren’t going to care about rental cars that candidates drive.”

Alisa Rivers, 44, of Detroit, said even though she resides in Michigan, a state that accounted for nearly 20 percent of all auto production in the United States in 2017, presidential candidates don’t have to own, drive, or be driven around in American cars to secure her vote.

“It doesn’t make a difference for me,” said the Democratic voter who plans on casting a ballot in 2020 after ‘making a mistake’ and not voting in 2016. “I’m more interested in what kind of change you’re proposing rather than what kind of car you drive.”

Ken Miller, 50, of Detroit, said the industry is “important because it’s so much a part of our community.”

But he thinks other issues should take precedence over what kind of car a candidate drives or whether or not they represent a state that buy cars from the Big Three.

“That’s just one decision, that’s a personal decision,” Miller said. “... My concern is the people. What are your intentions for us on our level? Things that will affect our quality of life. So, that’s what’s important to me.”

Breaking down car data

A Blade analysis of data about car ownership by state from Kelley Blue Book suggests that, in the states that Donald Trump won in 2016, American cars — specifically pickup trucks — remained king. In 31 states, from Alabama to Wyoming, either the Ford F-150 or the Chevy Silverado 1500 was the most popular car. The Silverado also reigned supreme in Delaware, Maine and New Hampshire, three states won by Hillary Clinton, while in Minnesota, another state won by Clinton, the F-150 was most popular.

Foreign cars proved more popular in most states won by Clinton — 19 in all. SUVs made by Honda and Toyota topped the list in these places. The same was true in three states that went for Mr. Trump: Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Ohio’s most popular car, according to Kelley Blue Book, was the Honda Civic.

Ben Hinsey, a 27-year-old Jeep worker in Toledo, who supports Democratic presidential candidate U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), said driving a foreign car isn’t a disqualifier for a candidate in his view, even though he places a heavy importance on the auto industry.

“It wouldn’t disqualify him, but it would be a real bummer. It would be real bad,” Hinsey said when asked if he would still support Senator Sanders if he drove a foreign car.

However, when a candidate is seeking an endorsement in a local race, it becomes a game of politics, Hinsey added.

“I’ll put it this way, If we don’t like them, we’re going to bring it up that they drive a foreign-made vehicle,” he said. “But if they’re good on everything else, we’re going to look the other way.”

Ron Gregalit, 61, of Wyandotte, Mich., identifies as an independent. He said : “I don’t think [a candidate driving a foreign car] would be disqualifying, no. When you say Big Three car, that’s one class of the cars, but you know Hondas, Mercedes, BMW, are all built in the United States.”

Campaigns for former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), and Sanders, the top three polling Democrats, did not respond to The Blade’s request for information about what kind of cars they own, drive, or are driven around in.

Staff writer Liz Skalka contributed.


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