Electric Cars’ Partisanship Problem
About half of EVs are sold in the top Democratic strongholds, new research finds.
Sales of electric cars have reached what some researchers believe is a “tipping point.” Now that the share of cars sold that are EVs has barreled past the 5% mark, the theory goes, they will rapidly take over the entire market. In the first quarter of this year, the Tesla Model Y became the best selling car in the world.
But new research shows that the escalating interest in electric vehicles has been highly partisan, calling into question the tipping point theory and threatening the widespread adoption needed to accomplish U.S. climate goals.
In the decade between 2012 and 2022, about half of new EVs sold went to the 10% most Democratic counties in the U.S., and about one-third went to the top 5%. That’s the main finding of a working paper released Monday by three economists from the University of California, Berkeley, MIT, and the business school HEC in Montreal. The researchers found that even when looking at individual years, the proportion of sales that went to top Democratic counties in 2012 remained unchanged in 2022.
“We expected to see a broadening of the market,” Lucas Davis, the author from Berkeley, told me in an email. “After all, it has now been 14 years since Nissan introduced the original Leaf, and long-range EVs have been widely available for a decade.” But the study suggests that while Democrats have long been strong supporters of EVs, interest from Republicans has remained unchanged.
Though there’s no clear signal in the data that EVs are becoming more polarized, that might change if Republican presidential candidates are successful in making EVs a wedge issue in the upcoming election. In a campaign speech in Detroit last month, former President Donald Trump called President Biden’s electric vehicle policies “cruel and ridiculous.” Trump played into fears that batteries are “bad for the environment,” and framed EVs as “for people who want to take very short trips,” despite most models achieving more than 200 miles before needing a charge. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has promised to reverse Biden’s policies that “force Americans to buy electric vehicles,” citing concern about dependence on China. Vivek Rameswamy has called subsidies for EVs “anti-American.”
The recent flurry of anti-EV sentiment from Republicans isn’t limited to the campaign trail. Many Republican states have imposed punitive annual registration fees on EV owners. Earlier this year, Wyoming lawmakers floated a bill to end EV sales by 2035, arguing EVs threaten the state’s oil and gas industry. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin rejected a proposed Ford battery plant due to its partnership with a Chinese company.
The new findings are also consistent with public opinion polling. For instance, this spring, Pew found that 56% of Democrats were very or somewhat likely to consider buying an EV, versus only 20% of Republicans.
In order to discern whether there was any correlation between EV adoption and political ideology, the authors gathered EV sales data by state and county from 2012 to 2020. As a proxy for political ideology, they used county-level voting records from the 2012 presidential election — but also tested the findings using records from 2016 and 2020 and found similar results. The data showed that EV adoption was highly concentrated in counties with the highest share of Democratic votes.
One perhaps unsurprising finding was that nine of the top ten counties for EV sales were in California, and the top four counties for EV sales were all in the Bay Area. Some of these, like Santa Clara and San Francisco, are among the wealthiest counties in the country, and past research has identified correlations between EV adoption and income. But even when the researchers controlled for income, the strong association between EV sales and Democrats persisted. They also found the correlation remained “strong and statistically significant” after controlling for population density — a rough proxy for the presence of EV chargers — and gasoline prices.
The authors warn that the results do not bode well for Biden’s climate goals. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed new fuel economy rules that are designed to increase EV sales to two-thirds of all new vehicles by 2032. “Such an aggressive increase would require adoption patterns to change dramatically,” they write.