They ride the streets in pickups and cars old enough to suggest a welder or a store clerk is behind the wheel. Cameras follow and, if the drivers have their way, so will votes.
Vehicular stagecraft is on the road again as U.S. office-seekers deploy high-mileage autos meant to confer Main Street authenticity. The Fords, Chevrolets and Jeeps are rolling protection against charges of elitism like those that led to the June 10 primary defeat of Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tom Wolf, a millionaire businessman who last month won the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania governor, delivered his victory speech in a baseball stadium after driving his 2006 Jeep Wrangler from the outfield to home plate, adding a few hundred feet to its 80,000 miles.
“He’s not going to convince me that he’s not well-funded,” said Michael Markland, 43, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Springfield Township. “It doesn’t matter to me if he’s driving a Jeep or a BMW or a Lexus.”
Yet in the U.S., with its wide-open spaces and 48,000 miles (77,250 kilometers) of interstate highways, locomotion makes the man. The key to Paul Revere’s fame was his horse. Country singer Hank Williams’s death would have been less memorable had it happened somewhere besides the back of a 1952 Cadillac. When politicians need to communicate, cars speak a uniquely American language.
The recent craze for modest wheels began after Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown piloted a GMC Canyon truck to victory in a Massachusetts special election in 2010. After losing his 2012 re-election bid, he’s driven it to neighboring New Hampshire, where he’s seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen. He features the vehicle in television ads.
In Illinois, Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, who owns nine homes and earned $53 million in 2012, “still drives a 20-year-old camper van, wears an $18 watch and stays in the cheapest hotel rooms he can find,” according to the website of his gubernatorial campaign. He also drives a 2012 Ford Edge and a 2008 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic motorcycle, said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman.
Sometimes accessories are required.
Alabama state Representative Steve Hurst, who runs a pawnshop and fireworks store in Talladega, faced a challenge in the June 3 primary. He burnished his blue-collar image by driving his district in a pickup truck, while also demonstrating fealty to the Second Amendment by towing a black barbecue grill shaped like a giant handgun. He won.
The importance of a veneer of humility, from flannel shirts and a folksy manner to artfully arranged hay bales, has been magnified in an era of distrust and disgust. Approval ratings of Congress hover in the low teens and incumbents are vulnerable to charges that they’re out of touch.
How can a car help a politician? Ask an expert.
“The first rule is ‘Buy American,’” said Olga Vicari, general sales manager at Bob Rohrman Schaumburg Ford, in a western Chicago suburb.
The next rule:
If you’re Republican, a truck is a potential talisman. Retail pickup registrations in 2013 represented 14 percent of all new vehicles nationwide, according to IHS Automotive in Southfield, Michigan. Nine of the 10 states with the highest percentages voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
For politicians who wish to convey the ideas of rebellion and freedom, motorcycles, particularly those of Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson Inc., have been a good way to roll.
Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican U.S. Senate nominee who brags of castrating hogs, this year is featured in a campaign video riding a Harley to a gun range. Former congressman Tom Tancredo promotes his Republican candidacy for governor by a riding a Harley around Colorado without a helmet.
For his part, Mike Kopp, Tancredo’s opponent in the June 24 primary, bicycled 436 miles in six days.
The linkage of transport and politics was a Democratic innovation. In 1948, Harry Truman ran for president with a whistle-stop train tour and Lyndon Johnson, then a Senate candidate, barnstormed Texas in a then-rare helicopter.
Mobility-related gimmicks came into their own in the 1970s, when “Walking” Wendell Mitchell trekked from Dothan to Montgomery, a distance of about 100 miles as part of his successful bid for the Alabama Senate. He served for 36 years.
Democrat Richard Lamm, a college professor, objected to the cost of elections and, in 1973, hoofed it across Colorado. He won the race for governor the next year and served for 12 years.
The politics of vehicles poses risks. A car struck Tancredo as he campaigned on his motorcycle in 2010. Another potential downside is looking silly.
“Those kinds of optics work in politics only when they feel authentic,” said Matt Bennett, who as an advance man helped arrange the widely ridiculed M1A1 Abrams tank ride by Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988. Images of the grinning, diminutive Massachusetts governor poking his helmeted head from the 68-ton vehicle, wound up in television ads mocking him.
And, of course, any aging auto poses intrinsic hazards. In 1978, U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey was still driving a beat-up 1960s Oldsmobile with more than 100,000 miles on it.
After a speech in North Brunswick, the jacketless Democrat was left tinkering under the hood after the car failed to start. He didn’t make his next engagement in Newark.