Blue states benefit most from 'Clunkers' program

ByPeter Urban, Gannett Washington Bureau
September 05, 2009, 7:19 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Democrat-driven Cash for Clunkers program appears to have been a bigger boon for blue states than red.

Eight of the top 10 states taking advantage of the rebate program voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (blue states), while seven of the bottom 10 backed Republican John McCain (red states), according to a Gannett state-by-state analysis of rebates per licensed driver.

Minnesota, where car dealers have requested nearly $73.2 million in rebates, led the way in Clunker participation with a per-driver request of $23.70.

Wyoming, where a little more than $2.5 million in rebates has been requested, participated least — $6.43 per licensed driver.

The finding was puzzling for political analysts and car dealers contacted for this article, who suggest that interest in the program varied for a lot of reasons.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

Lake suggested that an interest in the environment could have been a motivating factor. Or it may simply have been a case of auto dealers being hungrier for sales in some states than in others.

"I know in Tennessee, dealers were pulling back, whereas in Illinois, the dealers were all gung-ho," she said.

Cash for Clunkers offered rebates of either $3,500 or $4,500 to those who traded in gas-guzzling "clunkers" and bought fuel-efficient new cars. The incentive ended Aug. 24 with dealers requesting nearly $2.9 billion in rebates on sales of 690,114 new cars. The Transportation Department hopes to complete processing the applications by the end of the month.

The 28 states Obama won in 2008 have requested nearly $2.13 billion in rebates, or $15.12 per licensed driver.

The 22 states that voted for McCain have requested $757 million, or $12.17 per driver.

Support for the Cash for Clunkers program broke largely along partisan lines in Congress.

In June, the Senate narrowly overcame a procedural hurdle to fund the program. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson was the only Democrat to oppose it. Only four Republicans favored it: Kit Bond of Missouri, George Voinovich of Ohio, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Susan Collins of Maine.

Michael Traugott, an adjunct professor in the University of Michigan's political science department, said political allegiances likely had little to do with where the Cash for Clunkers program was a success. Political support for the program was largely about saving auto manufacturing jobs. That concern may have raised interest in the program among states with large labor unions, but basic economics was likely a bigger factor, he said.

"First and foremost, individuals need to be creditworthy and have an interest in trading up an older vehicle," Traugott said. "The need for a new car probably depends on driving patterns, especially to and from work. That probably explains why states with large urban areas and public transportation are absent from the (top 10) list."

Mike Dockendorf, general manager of St. Cloud Toyota, said Cash for Clunkers generated a lot of interest in Minnesota, particularly among blue-collar workers who otherwise might not have been in the market for a new car.

"Some regular, middle-class Americans actually got something they could use. That was a big positive," said Dockendorf.

His dealership has put in for about 80 rebates.

"It was absolutely a good deal for us," Dockendorf said. "We had so many models that fit the formula, and we had a lot of people that had qualifying trades – Ford Explorers and F150 trucks."

Bob DeBoer, general manager of Action Chrysler in Jackson, Miss., tells a different story. His dealership sold only 15 cars with the Cash for Clunkers incentive, and the state, as a whole, was second from the bottom, with rebate requests of just $6.46 per driver.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who would have loved to trade in, but in Mississippi, income and credit right now are the worst I've seen," DeBoer said. His dealership was also hurt by low inventory, he said.

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