Americans Are Car Experts, Political Novices

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Republican pollster Resurgent Republic had a nifty idea for figuring out how swing voters see President Obama: Have them compare him to cars. But the biggest revelation: voters have a detailed knowledge of the car industry going back decades, but less knowledge about politics.

Resurgent Republic talked to four focus groups (two in Denver, two in Richmond) made up of people who voted for Obama in 2008 but aren't sure they will this time. The voters' descriptions of cars are long and detailed, but on Obama, they're pretty fuzzy. A Denver voter with a somewhat more positive view had this description of the president: "A luxury mini-car with… problems. Like my car when you're driving and have it on cruise control and you hit a speed bump or something and it shuts off. It's a nice car, but there are some problems with it. It's very polished, nice looking, a good car, but there are some problems." It's a struggle to see how the first part of the description applies to Obama: the complaint is that when he hit a speed bump, he didn't stay on cruise control? Wouldn't we want the president to flip off cruise control in a crisis? It's clear the voter got lost in thought about his or her automobile. Likewise, another Denver voter said Obama was like the Chevy Volt: "I think he was a good idea, but there isn't an infrastructure to support it. He doesn't have any real teeth." Clearly, the American presidency is not without infrastructure. 

The Resurgent Republic shows the problems with fixating on independent voters for detailed analysis of what the people think Washington should do. And it's an interesting contrast to a Pew Research Survey released Wednesday showing the public doesn't know very much about what issues define the political parties. Perhaps troublingly for the Tea Party-infused Republican Party, only 53 percent of the public identifies their party as the one that wants to cut the size of government. Only 67 percent know Democrats want to raise taxes on rich people. Only 61 percent know House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat, only 55 percent know House Speaker John Boehner is a Republican. But that's with partisans, who follow this stuff more closely, averaged in. Independents are much more clueless. When asked which party was associated with wanting to expland gay rights, only 64 percent said Democrats. When asked which party want to drill for oil in Alaska's wildlife refuge, only 59 percent said Republicans. The October 2011 version of the Pew survey had similar results. It found that that while 75 percent of independents know Steve Jobs founded Apple, only 36 percent knew Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives (though somehow 55 percent knew John Boehner is speaker).

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And perhaps that explains the long and detailed histories of American cars the voters offered. Among the most negative evaluations of Obama came from a Richmond voter, who said he was like the Dale:

 "It was supposed to come out in the 1970s. It was a woman who -- it's a great story if you've never heard of it -- she gave us this car, the Dale, which was supposed to end the gas crisis. It was supposed to be for the masses, kind of like the Volkswagen -- user-friendly. It was this really kind of cool, sleek-looking car. And then, the thing never ran, it was a false bill of goods. It looked good on paper, but when it came to delivering it, it was worse than it even came out to be."

The Dale was to be a two-seater sports car created by Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, which was founded by a fraudster. It was never manufactured. It is indeed a neat story. But it's hard to tell what part is about Obama. (Not "user-friendly," one hopes.) The part about failing to deliver on promises  might imply that Obama didn't go far enough on health care or closing Guantanamo -- which wouldn't be things a Republican group would want to highlight. Typically the complaint is that he went too far. Other responses show a love of cars but not a love of politics:

  • Volvo: "It's not wildly popular, but a certain core popularity that won't budge. It has varying degrees of reliability depending on the data you look at." 
  • Kia: "He's sort of new, sort of reliable, but I don't have enough information on him." (Clearly!)
  • Ford Freestyle: "It's dependable and it's a family-oriented kind of thing."
  • BMW 328i: (To be clear, not just a BMW, not just a BMW sedan, but specifically a 328i) "It's still kind of a family car, but it's also a kind of sporty, dependable and it's a good car."
  • Ford Taurus: "It seems like a reliable car you see a lot." (Resurgent Republic ranked this comment as the most positive, somewhat inexplicably. But it's true, you do see the president a lot on TV.)


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.