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Driver-in-Chief: What Does the Next President of the United States Drive?
Forbes_AutoA politician's choice of car is highly scrutinized these days, as voters hope to glean some insight into who is the best choice. What do Barack Obama and John McCain's cars say about them?

by JOHN ADAMS, ForbesAutos.com

Want to know how John McCain feels about fuel economy? Or how Barack Obama reacts to criticism?

A peek in their garages might provide a clue.

Cars the Candidates Drive:

  • Cadillac CTS
  • Chrysler 300C
  • Ford Escape Hybrid

With the possible exception of residential real estate, nowhere do a politician's private consumer preferences and public policy positions intersect so directly as with their automobiles. Simply put, the kind of cars that politicians drive, or are driven in, can speak volumes about their views on issues like the environment, the economy, labor, and foreign oil dependence.

The cars project an image and, however carefully orchestrated, give millions of strangers a glimpse of who the candidate is.

Barack Obama opted for a Ford Escape Hybrid last summer, reportedly after he sold a Chrysler 300C. John McCain likes the Cadillac CTS so much he has two, one a 2004 model and one a 2007. (Neither candidates' staff would respond to phone calls requesting comment. Their car choices came from a check of government records and other sources.)

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

"As is the case with all things political, what you choose to drive should be consistent with your values and personality," says Jim Dorsey, senior manager of media relations for Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., research firm. Dorsey also has served as press secretary for several political heavyweights in his home state, including former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

Even if the candidate doesn't have time to personally drive the car, it affects public perceptions.

"The cars that we have as consumers are public statements about ourselves," says Scott Piergrossi, creative director of the Brand Institute, a brand consulting firm in Miami. "What are people going to think about the automotive choice that I've made? An automotive choice is a great way to define a candidate, since every decision a candidate makes about everything gets scrutinized." (Click here to see the car choices of some key figures in the 2008 presidential race.)

Of Cadillacs and Chryslers

Branding experts like Piergrossi say McCain's choice reflects the longtime Arizona senator's image as a war hero, as Cadillac is an iconic brand that projects patriotism. "The Cadillac is a classic American car, and it gives off the perception of luxury," Piergrossi says.

McCain may also be subtly recasting himself at the same time. "The CTS has a sporty appeal to it, so you get a more youthful perception. So McCain is extending how he defines himself, but he's also doing so by staying in the realm of what's believable," Piergrossi says.

As for Obama, his switch to a hybrid last year was not out of the blue. According to news reports, the Illinois Senator chose a new ride after a controversy over remarks he made during a speech.

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

He had criticized the auto industry for failing to prepare for higher oil prices and changes in consumer habits. That caused some to attack his choice of vehicle.

Though the Chrysler 300C is highly rated, its powerful Hemi V8 engine gets below-average fuel economy. It is essentially an upscale modern-day muscle car with a macho edge.

And when the car caused an uproar, Obama switched gears to a politically safer model.

Piergrossi says shifts like Obama's often happen when private activity doesn't match a public image, forcing politicians to evolve on the fly. "This goes to show that, as you develop your brand, there will be hurdles and obstacles along that path to how you define yourself," he says.

Obama's decision was also likely an attempt to put his automotive tastes as a campaign issue to rest.

Alan Siegel, chairman and CEO of Siegal and Gale, a New York-based strategic branding firm, says that for all politicians and public figures, lifestyle choices are parsed by the public. But for presidential candidates, the scrutiny can be extreme.

In such an environment, the last thing candidates need is to have their automotive choice played for "gotcha" points by opponents. "Everything the candidates do and say is recorded and played back for a mistake or some sign of quirkiness," Siegel says.

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

Safety in Hybrids

Hybrids from domestic automakers are relatively new but have quickly become a "safe" car choice for politicians. At least five of the former 2008 presidential candidates have one. Hillary Clinton reportedly uses a Mercury Mariner Hybrid, while Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney all own or lease Ford Escape Hybrids. (Edwards also reportedly owns a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica midsize crossover utility vehicle and a 1994 GMC truck, Richardson a Jeep Wrangler, and Romney a 2005 Ford Mustang Convertible.)

"Hybrids have become the auto equivalent of wearing a red ribbon to show support for the fight against AIDS," says Gerry O'Brien, a New York-based political consultant. "Until the prices come down and it's more affordable for working-class folks, it's still just symbolism."

But not all politicians are hybrid fans, on the left or the right. Republican Mike Huckabee, who ran a long campaign against McCain for the '08 nomination, has a personal fleet that includes a 1995 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup and a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe. And on the Democratic side, Ohio Congressman and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich leases a 2007 Ford Focus compact sedan.

Still they all have one thing in common: No imports. "To drive an American-made car is a prerequisite for a politician," Dorsey says.

Regardless of a candidate's political affiliation, car choices can be a way to woo voters.

With his Cadillac passion, McCain can subtly connect with what's perceived as the traditional GOP demographic the middle-aged, professional, mass affluent says Global Insight's Dorsey. "The Cadillac connects well to the Wall Street demographic."

Though a large luxury car obviously strikes a contrast with a hybrid even if it happens to be a sport utility vehicle like the Ford Escape Hybrid it is unlikely that Obama's decision to replace the Chrysler 300C was about positioning his automotive choice in opposition to McCain's. Even so, it is worth noting that had Obama not swapped cars, there would have been little difference between the two men at least in terms of the brand imagery evoked by personal automotive choice. The Chrysler 300C is a premium sedan that is close in price, features and fuel economy to the Cadillac CTS.

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

"One could argue that associations with a 300C and Cadillac CTS are similar, or at least positioned to be similar, on most levels," Piergrossi says, adding both the 300C and CTS promise luxury, power and size with an American heritage. "The perceptions surrounding a Ford Escape Hybrid are clearly different."

In Piergrossi's view, Obama's switch to a hybrid helps solidify his positioning as a candidate of change. "One cannot ask the American people to adjust their attitudes or behaviors if he himself is not willing to do so," he says. "This move helps him solidify his brand."

O'Brien says automotive choices are a good way to gauge the progress of certain issues in the public and political conscience. "You begin to see how the environmental movement has made an impact on their decisions, based on automotive choices and the public's perception of those choices," he says.

But he has a more cynical perspective on the Chrysler 300C-to-Ford Escape Hybrid move. "Obama's shift is one of those things that people hate about politicians; they often don't do the right thing until they are caught," he said. "Personally, I'd have more respect for the guy if he had stuck with the car he originally chose."

Sending Subtle Messages

A politician's choice of automobiles can be at once simple to read like owning a hybrid to suggest your environmental bona fides or it can be more subtle. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, owns a vintage 1960s-era Mustang which became just as much a part of his youthful alpha male persona during the 1990s as playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. It was an image that at times worked both for and against him. And President George W. Bush's Ford F-250 pickup, which he drives mostly around his ranch in Crawford, Texas, is an indelible part of his image as a New England Ivy Leaguer turned jeans-clad ranch hand.

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

Dorsey says Dukakis lived in a Boston suburb and mostly took the subway to work. That, of course, is a "working class" statement in and of itself, similar to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg riding the Lexington Avenue subway line from his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to City Hall in lower Manhattan.

Dukakis' first car while governor was a Chevrolet Celebrity. That might seem "plain vanilla" from a personality perspective despite its name, the now-discontinued Celebrity was utterly mundane but his choice was politically compelling. That specific car was the first to be manufactured at a General Motors plant in Massachusetts that Dukakis helped reopen after it had been closed during the 1980s recession. "So we were making a double statement," Dorsey says. "The Governor was driving an American, union-made vehicle, and the first car to roll off of the line that he helped save."

In the age of 24-hour cable television news, the Internet, YouTube and incessant blogging, it's likely that little about a candidate's image or personality is left to chance."If the campaign is a smart and good campaign, there's someone who's thinking about everything: what the candidate looks like getting out of the hotel in the morning, what the candidate is wearing to specific events, the audience at those events, everything," Dorsey says.

This suggests there's very little room, if any, for a candidate to make any kind of choice based on simple personal preference, agnostic to how that choice plays in the public. "All of the politician's personal trappings have to be consistent with a message to the electorate, and that includes cars, clothes, everything," Dorsey says.

And the image obsession goes well beyond the candidate. Even their representatives have to be aware of what they're driving, perhaps even more so since a politician's staff is more accessible to the public.

Dorsey knows this from personal experience. "I worked as a volunteer for Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 general election campaign in Ohio. I drove to Ohio in my 1994 Saab convertible. Then I drove around the state in American-made rental cars," Dorsey says. "That's the message you want to portray."

In Pictures: Cars of the Candidates

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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