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Perception and reality

When issue groups or corporations ask me to work with them in devising messages to help sell their perspective on public policy, I usually assume the goal is to find an argument voters could agree with and find compelling.

Oddly enough, though, sometimes the most effective message is not one that voters find persuasive, but rather an argument that politicians assume voters find compelling. Witness the battle over fuel economy standards five years ago.

Polls consistently found over three-quarters of Americans favored stricter Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Battling the majority view, industry deployed its message: Pickup truck owners, an important segment, particularly in rural states, would be livid at senators who supported CAFE because tougher standards would doom their vehicles.

What if it was all wrong, though? What if pickup owners not only overwhelmingly favored CAFE, but also rejected as completely inaccurate the notion that fuel economy regulations would take pickups off the road? What if it was a message that no one believed, one that persuaded very few? 

That was exactly the case. Our poll of pickup owners, for the Union of Concerned Scientists, found they favored stricter CAFE standard by 77 percent-18 percent. A mere 8 percent believed the core opposition argument — that automakers would stop manufacturing pickups.

Alas, our poll was too little, too late. Members of Congress had come to believe firmly, based on no evidence whatsoever, that a vote for CAFE would engender the wrath of pickup drivers.

Now, with fuel economy again on the agenda, industry exhumed its message, raising the specter of irate pickup drivers. We replicated our survey, this time for the National Environmental Trust, and this time much earlier in the debate, and found even greater support for CAFE among owners of these vehicles.

Eighty-three percent of pickup owners favor requiring the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars, SUVs, and their own vehicles, with 70 percent “strongly” favoring such an increase. Just 9 percent of pickup owners oppose an increase.

Support for higher standards is undiminished in segments upon which opponents focus. For example, 88 percent of rural pickup owners support higher standards, as do those who use their pickup on the job (84 percent) and those economically dependent on the auto industry (87 percent) and agriculture (91 percent).

Going a step further, we provided respondents with arguments on both sides of the issue, including opponents’ message that stricter standards would take vehicles like SUVs, minivans, and pickups off the market, as well as arguments that increasing standards would raise auto prices, hurt U.S. auto companies, cost jobs, and reduce safety. Despite these reputedly powerful opposition messages, 72 percent still favor requiring the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency, while just 23 percent oppose.

The simple fact is that industry messages lack basic credibility.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.