Here’s why so many Republicans won’t buy EVs

Electric cars have taken off across the United States. Even amid news of slowing sales, the country sold almost 1.2 million fully electric vehicles in 2023, more than quadruple the number in 2019. Grocery stores and rest stops are installing charging stations across the country; electric cars have moved beyond niche status and are being produced by Ford, GM, Hyundai and many others.

But there is one thing holding the nation back from the dream of an all-electric future: political polarization. Polling and sales data have consistently shown that while Democrats have been buying the new cars in droves, Republicans haven’t jumped onto the EV-buying train.

“The Republican is like, ‘They’re trying to ban gas cars - I’m not going to buy a Biden-mobile,’” said Mike Murphy, a former Republican strategist who runs the nonprofit EV Politics Project, which attempts to counter misinformation on electric cars and encourage conservatives to adopt the vehicles.

Personal cars account for 20 percent of U.S. planet-warming emissions, and more Americans still prefer gas-powered ones. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last year found that 46 percent of respondents favored a gas car, compared to 19 percent who wanted a fully electric vehicle. If that doesn’t change, it will be almost impossible for the United States to meet its climate goals.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in March of this year, 61 percent of Democrats reported that they were “seriously considering” or “might consider” buying an EV in the future - compared to only 24 percent of Republicans. At the same time, 69 percent of Republicans said that they “would not buy” an EV in future, compared to 27 percent of Democrats.

Actual sales show a similar trend. According to an analysis from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, MIT and HEC Montréal, between 2012 and 2022 about half of all EVs sold went to the top 10 percent most Democratic counties in the United States. Around a third of all EVs sold went to the top 5 percent most Democratic counties. That pattern persisted when researchers analyzed the most Democratic states, according to the working paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The finding held when researchers accounted for income, gas prices and population density. That means that even when looking at dense, urban areas - which are more likely to have more public EV charging - Democratic counties outweighed Republican ones in EV adoption.


“There’s an incredible correlation with political ideology,” said Lucas Davis, a professor of business and technology at the University of California at Berkeley and the lead author on the analysis.

During the 10 years of the study, Davis pointed out, the electric vehicle market swelled from just a few all-electric models to dozens, with annual sales growing from around 50,000 EVs to 750,000. But the proportion of those vehicles going to Democratic counties stayed nearly constant. “It’s incredibly consistent across time,” Davis said.

There are other possible explanations, he cautioned: For example, buyers in counties with a higher EV share could notice electric cars more, and ultimately consider buying one themselves.

Still, Democratic areas have much more than their fair share of electric cars. So why did electric cars become - and stay - so polarized?

One reason is that Republican leaders have injected electric vehicles into the culture wars, in light of President Biden’s effort to move the country away from gas cars. Former president Donald Trump has railed against electric cars, calling support of them “electric car lunacy” and the push for an EV future “very, very stupid.”

“I think it is getting more polarized,” Murphy said. “Republicans are instinctively: ‘If Biden’s for it, we’re against.’”

An analysis of social media content by The Washington Post shows that conservative criticism of electric cars rose in August 2022 after California announced rules to phase out fully gas-powered cars by 2035 - and when the Biden administration finalized an Environmental Protection Agency rule in March that would push automakers to make more than 50 percent of cars sold by 2032 all-electric or hybrid.

Conservatives talking about EVs often make a few standard critiques: that switching to electric cars will end up supporting China, that the vehicles are too expensive for ordinary Americans, or that Democrats are taking away Americans’ right to choose which cars they drive.

“It’s a religion,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox News shortly after California announced its plan to phase out gas-powered cars. “It’s about making them feel like good people and increasing their control over you.”

But there are other reasons Republicans might be more reluctant to switch to electric cars. Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a co-author of the 2018 book “Prius or Pickup?” says that political polarization partly stems from deep-seated psychological “worldviews.” Liberals tend to be more afraid of systemic issues like climate change compared to conservatives. Conservatives also tend to be more hesitant to adopt new technologies; liberals are more open to change.

Those preferences can lead Republicans to stick with the large cars and trucks that they know; it can also lead liberals to opt for hybrids or electric vehicles.

When it comes to Democrats adopting EVs, Davis said, “It demonstrates your environmental bona fides to your neighbors.”

And once those habits are created, they become calcified. Cars become not just a way to get around but a form of personal expression, identity and group membership. Democrats see friends and family driving EVs and want to do the same; Republicans hear elite members of their party blasting electric cars and opt to stay with gas.

Some analysts hope to change how conservatives see electric cars. John Marshall, the founder and CEO of the Potential Energy Coalition, a group that uses marketing strategies to boost climate action, says that his group’s research shows that abstract messaging - around EVs as job creators or as a path to energy independence - doesn’t work as well as pointing out how EVs cut pollution and the cost of owning a car. (According to an analysis by the group Energy Innovation, EVs can save $14 to $80 per refuel.)

Talk of banning gas-powered cars also doesn’t help. “Mandates, bans and limitations never win,” said Marshall. “Whenever one of those three things is mentioned, you lose support pretty significantly.”

Murphy says that carmakers need to focus primarily on how they can help consumers. “They’re fast, they’re quiet, need much less maintenance,” he said.

Gil Tal, the director of the Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis, says that resistance to new technologies is a normal part of the process. But he worries that this partisan divide could slow the process. “We need long-term investment and commitment in order to complete this push,” he said. “It’s not going to happen by itself.”


About 40 percent of new car buyers are Republicans, Murphy points out - without them, the country won’t be able to shift fully to electric vehicles.

One of the big questions going forward is how much of the trend is due to deep-seated disagreement on electric cars - and how much is simply the effect of seeing friends and neighbors owning the vehicles. Multiple studies have shown that actions like buying solar panels or buying EVs are “contagious”; they spread among communities.

That means that if EVs gain a foothold in Republican areas, they could spread quickly.

“If you know someone who has one, you’re far more interested and pro-EV than not,” Murphy said, “because the real-life experience contradicts the myth.”