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Electric Vehicles

Elon Musk Is Alienating Future Tesla Buyers, Heatmap Poll Finds

A small plurality of prospective EV buyers say Elon Musk has made them unlikely to buy or lease a Tesla.

Elon Musk.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s recent behavior may be catching up to Tesla, as a small plurality of prospective electric-vehicle buyers now say they are less likely to buy one of the automaker’s cars because of its billionaire owner, according to the inaugural Heatmap Climate Poll, a scientific survey of 1,000 Americans conducted last month.

Some 36% of Americans who want to buy an EV in the future say Musk’s actions are making them less likely to get a Tesla, the poll finds. That’s slightly larger than the 31% of prospective EV buyers who say that Musk is making them more likely to purchase a Tesla. These numbers tighten marginally when people who already drive an EV, many of them presumably Tesla drivers, are included in the group.

Musk appears to be particularly damaging the automaker’s brand among Democrats, the new poll finds. Some 44% of Democrats and left-leaning independents say Musk has made them less likely to look at a Tesla, the new poll finds.

These new results come from the Heatmap Climate Poll, which queried American adults in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., during a five-day period last month. It was conducted by Heatmap News and the Benenson Strategy Group.

The poll adds to a growing sense that Musk’s extracurricular activities may be starting to backfire on the automaker, which he co-founded and where he remains CEO. A YouGov poll recently found that, for the first time on record, Tesla is no longer the top choice for EV buyers. At an investor event earlier this month, Tesla unveiled a team of 17 previously unknown corporate executives — none of whom were named “Musk” — in what was widely seen as an attempt to distinguish itself from its most famous face.

But the Heatmap poll did not have only bad news for Musk. Among all Americans, about a third say Musk’s actions haven’t changed their mind about Tesla at all.

Perhaps the brightest spot in the data for him is that among high-income Americans — defined as those who make more than $100,000 a year — slightly more say Musk has made them more likely to consider a Tesla than less likely.

Musk also seems to be successfully rallying Republicans to the brand. About a third of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents say Musk’s actions have made them more likely to get a Tesla.

This still suggests a looming problem for Tesla, however, because Democrats make up a larger share of the electric-vehicle market than Republicans or independents. According to the Heatmap poll, roughly half of Democrats — but only 27% of Republicans — say that they plan to buy or lease an EV in the future. Democrats are also turning on Musk much more aggressively than Republicans are embracing him. While 31% of Democrats said Musk’s behavior had made them “much less likely” to get a Tesla, only 17% of Republicans said Musk had made them “much more likely” to do so.

The finding comes as Tesla, which still makes up the largest share of Musk’s fortune, faces more and more competition from other automakers. Tesla’s stock, which is down 42% over the past 12 months, has fallen faster and more sharply than other electric automakers. Roughly 50 new electric vehicles will hit the market over the next two years, including new models from Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Kia, and Hyundai. Tesla has announced only one new model, the Cybertruck, which will enter production later this spring or summer, nearly four years after it was first announced.

The poll suggests that Musk’s recent embrace of right-wing politics and Republican politicians is beginning to shape — and, perhaps, narrow — his customer base. It also comes as the EV industry, flush with new subsidies, has hit a tipping point for mass adoption in the American market. About one of every seven new cars sold in the United States today is an electric vehicle.

Since Tesla made him a public figure, Musk has tried to avoid easy partisan categorization. His practical politics have resembled those of other tech billionaires — sometimes with a green twinge. A decade ago, he resigned from Mark Zuckerberg’s pro-immigration lobbying group because it donated to Republicans who supported the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

In a 2020 interview with The New York Times, he described himself as “socially very liberal” but “economically right of center, maybe.” “To be clear, my historical party affiliation has been Independent, with an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year,” he tweeted in November.

But since the pandemic, Musk’s politics and public affiliations have veered right. In the run-up to the 2022 election, he recommended that his followers vote for Republican congressional candidates, and he has said he would support Governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign.

Much of the change has been linked to Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter. In April, he promised to buy Twitter for 38% above its market value in part to end its content-moderation policies, which he saw as too friendly to the left.

Since buying the social network, he has laid off more than 75% of its employees and reactivated the accounts of former President Donald Trump and the rapper Ye, who was once known as Kanye West. (Trump has yet to tweet; Musk banned Ye again after he tweeted a swastika.)

From his account, Musk has also cheekily called for the prosecution of Anthony Fauci and linked to a conspiracy website that suggested Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked by a male prostitute. References to “the woke Stasi,” “the woke mind virus,” and the “elite” media now pepper his tweets.

The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted via online panels by Benenson Strategy Group from Feb. 15 to 20, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. You can read more about the topline results here.


Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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