Detroit Automakers Face Delicate Dance With Red-State Supporters

Detroit Automakers Face Delicate Dance With Red-State Supporters


Under the Trump administration, few industries have been singled out for scorn and threats from the White House as much as automakers. But even if President Donald Trump’s re-election bid falls short in November, American car companies have a much bigger constituent to answer to: their own red-state customer base.

The delicate dance automakers have played with the administration shows how they manage public perception more broadly, emphasizing actions over words. By demurring when Trump provokes them on Twitter and quietly working on their electric-vehicle projects even as he loosens emissions standards, they’re passing on a chance to play a more vocal role combating climate change.

SUVs And Trucks Solidify Command Of Recovering U.S. Auto Market

A customer looks over General Motors Co. Chevrolet Silverado trucks at a dealership in Grove City, Ohio.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloombeg

That strategy lets them avoid offending their most crucial audience: truck buyers. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV sell nearly three-quarters of their pickups — their most-profitable, best-selling models — in states Trump won in 2016, according to an analysis by researcher Cox Automotive for Bloomberg News.

At the same time, auto executives are eager to demonstrate their sustainability credentials to investors and environmentally minded consumers by launching more EVs and committing to lower carbon emissions in line with the Paris climate accord. Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has pledged to hasten the industry’s transition to cleaner cars if he is elected.

With Election Day just two weeks away, carmakers are treading lightly as they prepare for the possibility of four more years with a president who has a twitchy Twitter finger. So while Ford applauded California Governor Gavin Newsom’s use of an electric Mustang Mach-E’s hood when he signed a ban on gas-powered cars by 2035, it features cattle pastures, small-town drive-ins and rapidly growing exurbs in ads for the F-150.

“The companies have all tried not to be overtly political,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with Autotrader, a unit of Cox.

Detroit automakers’ penchant for avoiding controversy used to be the standard for corporate America, but they’ve maintained tradition while companies from Nike Inc. to Walmart Inc. have gotten more responsive to hot-button topics, in part to reflect the views of more politically progressive customers and employees.

Big Red Trucks

Twelve of the top 15 states for pickup sales went for Trump in 2016.

Source: Cox Automotive

The auto companies say they strive to avoid partisanship and are focused on serving a variety of customers.

”Ford is driven by our values, not by politics,” said Rachel McCleery, a company spokeswoman. GM works across the aisle in Washington and with state and local governments, said company spokesman Jim Cain. “We believe public policy should be driven by data, not politics, and should support a wide range of consumer demands,” Fiat Chrysler said in a statement.

Of the top 15 states for pickup-truck sales, 12 voted for Trump in 2016. Ford’s F-150 — America’s top-selling vehicle of any kind — is the most “red,” deriving more than 74% of its sales from states that supported the president, according to the Cox analysis of dealer sales data. GM’s Sierra and Silverado pickups are right behind, at more than 73%, with Fiat Chrysler’s Ram at 70%.

Cox’s data are for the 12 months ended September 20 and come from its Dealertrack software installed in showrooms across the country for use in credit applications and purchases. It provides Cox with data on about 30% of U.S. retail sales, creating a representative sample of the market.

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