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Detroit Automakers Face Delicate Dance With Red-State Supporters

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Bloomberg, by Keith Naughton, Oct. 20, 2020 – 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.

That strategy lets them avoid offending their most crucial audience: truck buyers. General Motors Co., Ford Motor 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.

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.

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