A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Dealergate’: Mistaking Anecdotes for Data

Ever since Chrysler announced that it wanted to shed 789 of its 3,188 nationwide dealerships, speculation and outright accusations have circulated to the effect that Republican donors were being singled out. The list of dealers slated for closing contained some who had given to Republican candidates, and far fewer who had given to Democrats. One blogger’s early tabulation, based on the first five pages of the 40-page list of closed dealers, showed $120,000 had been given to GOP candidates and $34,350 to Democratic candidates in 2004 and 2008 (exclusive of presidential candidates). The same group also gave $7,150 to John McCain’s presidential campaign, and $0 to Obama’s. Within days the term “Dealergate” was being used to describe the budding “scandal.” One conservative blogger suggested Obama had kept a “dealer hit list.”

We received many inquiries about this, but reserved judgment. We knew from long experience, reporting on trends in campaign giving, that auto dealers as a group give far more heavily to Republicans than they do to Democrats. Over the past couple of decades the average has been about $3 to the GOP for every $1 to Democrats, and the ratio has been fairly steady from election to election. So it didn’t surprise us that the GOP donors being closed would outnumber the Democratic donors who also got the axe.

What we wanted to know was, how did the donations of those being closed compare to the donations of those staying open?  We wanted to see a systematic analysis of all the data, not just some cherry-picked anecdotes from one side of the ledger. Now, analysts at the Center for Responsive Politics, which specializes in tracking special-interest donations, have come up with something that gives a much fuller picture. And it offers little support for the “Dealergate” theorists.

CRP’s Michael Beckel reports in an item posted June 5 that domestic auto dealers funneled a total of $599,400 during the 2008 campaign to Sen. McCain, the Republican nominee for president, making him their top recipient. Obama came in fourth with $133,300. From that alone, one would expect that if car dealers were chosen for closing purely at random, the closed-down dealers would have given lopsidedly to McCain and, by extension, to Republicans. And the same would go for those who were not closed, of course.

CRP then searched within the 2008 donation data specifically for itemized contributions in which the word “Chrysler” appears where donors identify their employer or occupation. They also searched for references to Chrysler brands “Jeep,” “Dodge,” “Mopar” and “General Electric Motorcars,” and Chrysler corporate parents “Daimler” and “Cerberus.” Altogether, this group gave $26,200 to McCain and $2,700 to Obama.

That leads us to think that if Chrysler dealers were chosen for closing purely at random, with no political thumb on the scales at all, we should see nearly $10 in McCain donations for every $1 of Obama donations, both from the dealers who were closed and the dealers who were not.

These figures are not the final word. Lots of Chrysler dealers don’t have “Dodge” or “Chrysler” in their formal business names. Compiling a complete list of donations from both closed and protected Chrysler dealers would require a painstaking search though the list of more than 3,000 dealers, looking up donations from each of them whether they were on the list for closing or not. So far the “Dealergate” theorists haven’t produced that data. Instead, they have produced anecdotal evidence and jumped to conclusions.

For the record, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at a White House briefing May 28 that the administration isn’t even involved in picking which dealerships stay open and which are to close:

Gibbs, May 28: The President’s task force on autos did not pick individual dealerships. It hasn’t — it isn’t involved in picking what plants may or may not be closed. That’s not the job of the President’s auto task force. That’s the job of the individual car company. They’ve got to figure out in their newly restructured world, based on the market, what their central supply chain is. And I think those are the decisions that they made.

When a Fox News correspondent asked about “concern in the blogosphere” about political influence, Gibbs said, “let me reiterate that we don’t make those decisions, okay.  Chrysler makes those decisions.”