A politician's choice of car is highly scrutinised 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?
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.
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, labour, 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.)
"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, 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 scrutinised."
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.
He had criticised 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.