PRINCETON, NJ -- On the heels of the bleak news that U.S. automakers sold 41% fewer cars in February than they did a year ago, Gallup polling offers some reassurance that Detroit brands are still in demand. In fact, the percentage of Americans saying they would only consider cars from American companies when making a new-car purchase has increased slightly in recent months, from 30% in mid-December to 37% today.
According to the Feb. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll, a mere 12% of Americans now say they would only consider buying a foreign car, thus giving American automakers some advantage over foreign car companies. However, the largest group, 50%, says it would consider cars from both U.S. and foreign companies -- highlighting just how competitive the domestic market is for U.S. automakers.
Relatively few Americans of any group say they would only consider buying cars from foreign companies. By contrast, there is significant variation in support for buying only American cars among different subsets of the population.
Perhaps most troubling for Detroit in terms of the long-term outlook for its product is the finding that adults from 18 to 34 years of age are far less likely than older generations to limit themselves to American cars. Just 27% of respondents in this age bracket tell Gallup they would only consider buying American cars, compared with 37% of those 35 to 54 years of age, and 45% of those 55 and older.
The buy-American mentality is less prevalent as household income goes up, falling from 49% of those earning less than $30,000 per year to 37% among middle-income earners to just 26% among those earning $75,000 or more.
There is strong regional support for the Big Three automakers in the American Midwest -- the traditional home of the U.S. auto industry -- where 52% of adults say they would only consider cars from American companies. Elsewhere, the rate is a consistent 31% to 34%.
There are only slight differences along partisan lines in car-buying preferences, with 39% of Democrats, 37% of Republicans, and 33% of independents favoring American cars. The distinctions are a bit stronger along ideological lines, with conservatives more inclined than liberals to buy American: 40% vs. 30%. Moderates fall squarely in between, at 35%.
Two Kinds of Democrats
These differences in car buying along political lines are magnified when looking at ideology within party. Most notably, Democrats are sharply divided along ideological lines in their car tastes.
Moderate and conservative Democrats (consisting of 65% of all Democrats) are among the most pro-buy-American auto consumers in the new survey: 46% say they would only consider cars from an American company while just 6% would only consider cars from foreign companies.
By contrast, liberal Democrats are almost evenly divided among those who say they would only buy American and those who say they would only buy foreign cars: 27% and 22%, respectively. This makes liberal Democrats (consisting of 35% of all Democrats) among the least pro-buy-American consumers in the survey.
Independents are also somewhat split on the issue, depending on their ideology -- with conservative independents more likely than moderate and liberal independents to take the buy-American position, 42% vs. 30%.
Conservative Republicans tend to be similar to moderate/liberal independents in their position, with 34% saying they would only consider American cars. There are too few moderate/liberal Republicans in the survey to analyze.
Whether it's because of patriotism, taxpayer self-interest, or sympathy for U.S. automakers, slightly more Americans are in a buy-American mood when it comes to cars than was true a few months ago. While that's good news for Chrysler and General Motors, both of which stand on the brink of bankruptcy, the increase in such sentiment from 30% in December to 37% today may be too little, too late to offset the larger contraction in the car market altogether as a result of the economic slump.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.