Harley Riders Are as Politically Divided as the Rest of America

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has said that Harley-Davidson Inc. customers are “very angry” about the plan to shift some motorcycle production out of the U.S. to avoid European Union tariffs imposed in response to Trump’s protectionist measures against the EU.

He’s not completely wrong.

But Hog enthusiasts are like the rest of America: divided. How they feel about what the company’s doing may depend on their politics. And many don’t fit the Harley stereotype.

“It’s frustrating because most people have a one-dimensional view of Harley-Davidson riders,” said Anne Pendleton Phillips, who runs a gardening business in Providence, Rhode Island. She voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has owned a Softail Deluxe for 13 years and described herself as a liberal.

Her view is that Harley had no choice but to decide to ramp up production in non-U.S. plants to get around the EU tariffs that could cost the company as much as $100 million a year. “My love for HD won’t change,” she said.

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The president is of a different mind, blasting Harley on Twitter -- “I’ve done so much for you, and then this” -- and declaring, “We won’t forget, and neither will your customers.” Trump praised the company during a White House visit in February 2017 as “a true American icon.”

Read more: Trump to tour Foxconn as Harley trouble rumbles up the road

Harley doesn’t sell any motorcycles in the U.S. that are built overseas, and the company said that is not going to change. It has long produced bikes in foreign countries for other markets. The planned production shift is about products destined for EU markets to avoid 31 percent tariffs on those made in America: They could boost the cost of the average U.S.-made bike shipped to the EU by $2,200.

Some aficionados are angry anyway. “I don’t know what Harley’s thinking,” said Gary Nickoloff, 65, director of the Harley Owners Group chapter in Shiawassee, Michigan, and a Democrat who voted for Trump. He’s a General Motors Co. retiree who said he will only purchase vehicles built by United Auto Workers union members.

“I feel loyal to Harley. It’s always been an American company,” he said. “If they move work out of the United States, I’m going to feel a lot differently about them, and I’m sure the other members here will likely feel the same.”

The Divide

There’s plenty of overlap between the company’s customer base and Trump’s political base. People in both tend to be older, white, rural men, and research from Strategic Vision suggests that for each Democrat who owns a Harley, there are four Republicans. But then comes the divide.

“Trump has no business dictating where products are made,” said Charles Foulke, 58, a semi-retired mechanical contractor from Arlington, Virginia, who owns a 2009 Low Rider. “Harley-Davidson management are no dummies and it should be up to them to decide. All Trump is going to do is drive up costs.”

That’s probably not the main point, according to Al Pupo, 74, a retired electrical contractor in Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania, who has had eight Harleys since 1960, his latest a Sportster 1200 Custom. Buying American-made took on importance to him when he came back from Vietnam.

“After that, you hated anything that was not of this land,” he said. “Even your underwear you pick up you find out its made in Vietnam, of all places, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Not too many things are made in America any more.”

So now? “Everybody’s jumping on Trump and all this crap. Everybody’s panicking and running,” Pupo said. “I think they’re wrong.”

Just wait. Trade wars can go on for a while.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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