You are what you eat, in more ways than one. That is to say, the burger you grab on the run and the beer you pop open while watching your favorite television show gives consumer researchers clues about your political ideology. But some of our consumer choices reflect a deeper connection to the brands we know and love, one that goes beyond mere habit and becomes a part of our self-image.
That deeper connection is one of the reasons that comments by Chick-fil-A's chief executive struck such a chord, both with liberals who took issue with Dan Cathy's opposition to same-sex marriage and with conservatives who lined up for a chicken sandwich on an appreciation day organized by evangelical leaders like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
Consumer researchers have found a strong correlation between our spending, eating, and drinking habits and our political actions. If you eat at Chick-fil-A restaurants, Cracker Barrel, or Arby's, you're more likely to vote for Republicans, according to consumer data. Democrats are much more likely to get their chicken from Popeyes or Boston Market, shop at Whole Foods, and grab sliders from White Castle.
"The same factors that explain partisanship and voter turnout explain consumer behaviors in general," says Will Feltus, a marketing expert who has worked on Republican campaigns for years. Put another way: The brands we prefer, whether for a quick takeout meal or for sipping while we watch our favorite football team on Sunday, are a function of our shared experience: We tend to drive, eat, and drink what our friends drive, eat and drink, and we tend to shop where our friends shop.
People "choose to live around people who are like them, think like them, act like them, and that's reinforced when different stores and restaurants choose to locate in those areas," says Ken Strasma, a Democratic micro-targeting expert. Some corporations are more closely connected to specific communities. Chick-fil-A, which is closed on Sundays and has long cultivated its image as a Southern company with traditional Christian values, is one of those corporations. So when it finds itself under attack, its fans tend to believe their very way of life is being threatened.
Politicians can take advantage of those correlations to send a message about their own identities. It's no accident that, in the days that followed calls to boycott Chick-fil-A, conservatives such as Sarah Palin showed up for supportive photo ops, or that Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz served the chain's signature sandwiches at his election-night victory party. "Chick-fil-A people vote at a higher rate, which means they're going to pay attention to somebody who's dragging their favorite fast-food restaurant into a political tug-of-war," Feltus said.
Some of those correlations are becoming an integral part of the way both political parties identify and target voters. In 2004, George W. Bush's campaign ran advertisements on networks that fed into gyms, where they could reach fitness-minded voters on the treadmill. This year, President Obama's campaign is running spots on such shows as Judge Judy, which reaches a disproportionate number of stay-at-home mothers and Hispanics. A local candidate can find more high-propensity voters at an upscale shopping center than they would at a strip mall.
It's no surprise that many correlations fit with stereotypes that already exist: Americans who drive Jaguars are very likely to turn out to vote, and when they do, they cast Republican ballots. Those who own hybrid vehicles or Subarus are highly likely to be Democratic voters. It wasn't a coincidence that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus spotlighted Caribou Coffee when he blasted Obama administration officials for taking meetings with lobbyists outside the White House campus, meetings that weren't disclosed on visitor logs. Our deep ideological divisions have become intertwined with our daily lives, to the extent that a fast food-restaurant can become a rallying point for heated political debate, or a stereotype to easily pigeonhole an opponent as a "latte liberal."
A corporation's understanding of its own customer base drives decisions about where to locate new stores, helping explain some of the divide between red brands and blue brands. David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, has called the 2012 election a contest between Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel, two outlets whose customers largely represent opposite sides of the political divide.
In 2008, President Obama carried 81 percent of the counties that have a Whole Foods outpost. He won only 36 percent of the counties that have a Cracker Barrel, according to Wasserman's figures. Just 60 counties in America have both a Whole Foods and a Cracker Barrel. Most of the Cracker Barrel counties Obama won also have a Whole Foods outlet.
"Corporations, even those that try to steer clear of politics, still need to know the partisan structure of their consumer base," Feltus said. That means Whole Foods is more likely to locate its new stores in wealthier, more urban or suburban settings, while Cracker Barrel is more likely to choose exurban or rural areas along a major interstate, in order to best find their target demographics.
Many of the habits we develop appear to shed light on our cultural divide. Feltus and his firm, National Media, based just outside Washington, have crunched reams of consumer data to build fascinating profiles of voter behavior. Democrats tune in to such sitcoms as 30 Rock and The Simpsons, or news programs such as 60 Minutes and 20/20. Republicans dial in to football or crime dramas such as NCIS and Bones. Democratic beer drinkers prefer Miller High Life, Milwaukee's Best, Corona, Heineken, and Tecate — a mix of beverages favored by Hispanics and hipsters. Republican tipplers most often reach for Michelob Ultra and anything described as "light," beers one might drink while watching a football game.
"I've spent a long time trying to figure out, why is Heineken Democratic? Because when I went to college years ago, the only guy who could afford to buy Heineken, his daddy owned the Dallas Cowboys," Feltus said. "Heineken is now a cool beer that competes with Corona for the twentysomethings that have an extra buck for a beer."
In 2004, an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama burst onto the national scene with an inspiring call for unity at the Democratic National Convention. "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America," Obama said. "There is the United States of America."
He was wrong. If anything, the country is more divided than ever — ideologically, politically, culturally, and even over chicken sandwiches.