While the economy is trucking’s top concern, another subject loomed just as large during one of the industry's biggest trade shows this year: the 2024 presidential election.
The approaching election showed up in executives' remarks, a session on swing voters and attendee questions at the American Trucking Associations' Management Conference & Exhibition in Austin, Texas.
Politics has never been contained to the ATA’s Trucking Political Action Committee. With trucking preparing for an election year, it took on more emphasis as the trade group representing a multi-billion-dollar industry used the conference to share its views, research and specific policy agenda items.
Issues affecting trucking are inherently political, but they’re often bipartisan, newly elected ATA Chairman Andrew Boyle said during the closing banquet at the Austin Convention Center.
The co-president of Boyle Transportation, a Billerica, Massachusetts-based reefer carrier, challenged his fellow trucking executives to empathize as they advocate for the industry at the state and federal levels, and even at the Thanksgiving table, in the upcoming year. In doing so, he said the industry may be able to successfully advocate for goals like the repeal of the federal excise tax, which would lower the cost of a new tractor by 12.5%.
“Between political parties, Big Tech [and] media outlets, many entities want to profit off of fracturing us and ruining that Thanksgiving dinner,” Boyle said at the October conference. “But we can show a little bit of empathy, and maybe try to win the sale, even at that dinner table.”
‘We want none of it’
At last year’s conference in San Diego, ATA President and CEO Chris Spear criticized the administration of former President Donald Trump as “all hat, no cattle” for unfulfilled promises to the trucking industry.
This year, the association leader came out swinging against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and other adversaries in a fiery keynote address.
He blamed the union for Yellow Corp.’s demise. Then, the ATA CEO took a step further, calling out Biden, who has described himself as the most pro-union president in history.
“If that’s what this president is selling, we want none of it,” Spear said.
While the industry as a whole trends conservative, the trucking association appears to be waiting before it places any bets on Biden or Trump as 2024 approaches.
Neither candidate nor their top fundraising committees received contributions from the ATA’s Truck PAC as of Sept. 30, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Instead, ATA’s Truck PAC has sent more than $410,000 in political contributions to groups affiliated with members of Congress from both parties since Jan. 1, according to the FEC.
Big Trucking, big lobbying
Swing voters, truckers share a common worry
Throughout the conference, it was clear the attention of the trucking industry has shifted to the election. Dozens of attendees turned up to hear Rich Thau, founder and president of Engagious, Inc., share findings from the Swing Voter Project he created.
In a partnership with Axios, Thau asks focus groups of party-defying voters about their attitudes towards policies and political developments in Washington.
Concerns and opinions of “Trump-to-Biden” swing voters varied in the video clips Thau played.
But Thau emphasized a key point of consensus among swing voters on a major concern for Republicans and Democrats alike: They perceive both Biden, 80, and Trump, 77, as too old to be president.
It’s a poignant issue for a trucking industry staring down tremendous change with an aging workforce and increasing numbers of retirements expected in upcoming years.
“I have faith in the voting public, in the fact that they're going to sort this [election] out. I don’t know where it’s going to land,” said Jim Ward, Truckload Carriers Association president and retired president of D.M. Bowman, who attended Thau’s session. “Many of us are getting a little long in the tooth. ... Making sure we have a good strategy for development of our workforce is probably most concerning to me.”
‘Election years are always tricky’
After a pair of questions on the driver shortage and potential effects from the Israel-Hamas war, the third one ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello fielded at the end of his annual outlook concerned the upcoming election.
“Election years are always tricky with the economy,” Costello replied. “I tend to believe what can ultimately happen [is], if voters and households are unsure of the future, they might hold back a little bit on their purse strings.
“If voters and households are unsure of the future, they might hold back a little bit on their purse strings.”
ATA Chief Economist
“But generally what we find is, it all comes down to: Do they have a job? Are they making more money? That's more important [to] how they feel.”
During his closing banquet address, Boyle said he’d picked up the concept of “winning the sale” from former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican.
Baker had learned it from his father at the dinner table, after Baker’s mother left the room one night as her son raised his voice during a debate with her. “You may have won the argument,” Baker’s father cautioned him, according to Boyle. “But you lost the sale.”
The ATA chairman then described a passionate, environmental argument before the House Ways and Means Committee in September for repealing the excise tax. He said it came from a Democratic U.S. Representative from New Hampshire, who noted it would spur the adoption of cleaner and safer trucks.
“That, my friends, is ATA and our state partners winning the sale,” Boyle said.