New Poll Explains Why Trump Keeps Bashing Electric Vehicles

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the National Republican Senatorial Committee building on June 13, 2024 in Washington, DC Credit - Anna Moneymaker—Getty Images

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The actual roadmap for 2024 might have moved when you were not looking. Maybe—and it’s a big maybe, admittedly—the biggest detour in politics right now is parked in the driveway.

In ways subtle and overt, the electric vehicle has become the avatar for clean energy in the minds of voters, which may prove to be a political clunker for Democrats, despite having the stronger story to tell.

The voters most turned off by talks of Tesla Cybertrucks and Chevy Bolts? Young voters, voters without college degrees, and Latinos, according to new polling from the centrist groups Third Way and The NewDeal that is hitting allies’ inbox as you read this.

Their surveys find a surprising 44% of the American electorate hold a negative view of electric vehicles. The numbers are about the same for voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. That’s an anchor that no engine—powered by raw jetfuel or lithium-ion batteries—can move with so little time before Election Day in November.

To be clear, Biden has reason to brag about his climate initiatives. As TIME’s senior climate correspondent Justin Worland has reported over the last four years, “Bidenomics” is, at its core, a climate change agenda. It represents one of the cleanest breaks between a second Biden term or Trump return to power. But if Biden leans too heavily into the details, he risks turning off important slices of the electorate with a message that they’re inclined to hear as sanctimonious, sermonistic, and selectively favoring moneyed enclaves along the coasts.

Republicans have already succeeded in convincing their party base that clean energy is a give-away to China, a talking point they deployed while opposing Biden’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which, despite its silly name, will be looked upon in history books as a transformative piece of climate legislation. Yet in the meantime, anything in this wheelhouse is often dismissed on the right as part of a sinister Green New Deal, an amorphous notion that does not exist in legislative reality.

Democrats, on the other hand, have largely come to pitch clean energy as a moral imperative, one couched in being a good person, saving the planet, and righting injustices. Biden seems to spot the problem with that lens, often telling audiences that when he thinks about climate change, he is also thinking about jobs. But his base wants to hear the conversation through a filter of correcting decades of inequalities, and long-term employment trajectories for internal combustion engine-based gigs are tough sells when unemployment is already so low.

Both perspectives, to be clear, are incomplete at best and shading many of the facts. Americans bought more than 1 million electric vehicles last year, but that represents less than 10% of new auto registrations and the West Coast continues to dominate the market. This helps explain why Donald Trump keeps talking about slamming the brakes on a transition to EVs, a point he is likely to throw at Biden directly at this month’s highly anticipated presidential debate.

There’s long been a myth—and a popular one at that with progressives—that so-called Climate Voters are a sufficient force in politics to sway outcomes. This is, to be frank, not at all the case. In fact, climate change seldom merits a spot in the top-five ranking of priorities. The Third Way survey found just 4% of voters ranked climate change a deciding priority, well behind the economy, border, and democracy itself. Even amid the wave of inflation and worries about day-to-day costs, gas prices aren’t even a driving force; food, housing, taxes, and health care all outpace the price at the pump, according to Third Way’s research.

That’s not to say Climate Voters can be ignored, strategists say. They are likely to be highly educated, high-propensity voters who favor Biden by a solid 96-point margin. (They also have checkbooks that fuel the campaign and its allies.) The problem is there just aren’t enough of them to counter their intellectual inverse, a group lumped together in Third Way research as Economy First Voters. This conservative bloc tends to be heavily tilted toward Latinos, women, younger voters, and those who lack a college degree. These voters view themselves as just trying to get through the week without the government making it harder. And for these voters, Trump enjoys a 26-point margin and opposition to EVs enjoys a 44-point toehold. For Economy First Voters, a full 64% of these voters tell pollsters that climate change will have to wait until inflation is under control.

All of which paints the Biden team into a corner. That’s where Third Way’s two rounds of polling and focus groups in January and May could come into play. In quiet briefings with candidates, office-holders, and consultants, the teams at Third Way have been suggesting ways to change the language being used to talk about climate change and how that impacts transportation in particular. As pitched in one briefing TIME was invited to audit, unless voters are among those seeing the direct economic perks of this new tech, there’s no reason to bring it up; it only feeds suspicion of technology that, in many, many districts, has yet to arrive on a workable scale. (Some common charging stations can take an hour to re-juice a battery. And most are still in the most-affluent areas in the country, one study found, while most of the country remains a charging desert.)

Overall, there is a limited Democratic dividend to discussing these changes to daily life at the expense of gas-guzzling vehicles in every driveway and garage. When asked about specific components of an environmental and energy market, voters already see Trump as the better choice for reducing inflation and energy costs, increasing domestic energy production, and curbing reliance on foreign energy sources. Voters credit Biden as the better choice just for fighting climate change and reducing pollution.

In this, Biden backers may need to power down the talk of their biggest legacy win at least until the thought of a hatchback you need to charge feels more like a must-have, and less like a boondoggle.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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