What’s for Dinner? The Pollster Wants to Know
By Kim Severson
IF there’s butter and white wine in your refrigerator and Fig Newtons in the cookie jar, you’re likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. Prefer olive oil, Bear Naked granola and a latte to go? You probably like Barack Obama, too.
And if you’re leaning toward John McCain, it’s all about kicking back with a bourbon and a stuffed crust pizza while you watch the Democrats fight it out next week in Pennsylvania.
If what we eat says a lot about who we are, it also says something about how we might vote.
Although precincts and polls are being parsed, the political advisers to the presidential candidates are also looking closely at consumer behavior, including how people eat, as a way to scavenge for votes. The practice is called microtargeting, as much political discipline as buzzword. The idea is that in the brand-driven United States, what we buy and how we spend our free time is a good predictor of our politics.
Political strategists slice and dice the electorate into small segments, starting with traditional demographics like age and income, then mixing consumer information like whether you prefer casinos or cruises, hunting or cooking, a Prius or a pickup.
Once they find small groups of like-minded people, campaigns can efficiently send customized phone, e-mail or direct mail messages to potential supporters, avoiding inefficient one-size-fits-all mailings. Pockets of support that might have gone unnoticed can be ferreted out.
“This is essentially the way Williams-Sonoma knows which of its catalogs to send you,” said Christopher Mann of MSHC Partners, a political communications firm, which has used microtargeting to help dozens of successful candidates, including Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington and Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Although gender, religion and other basic personal data are much more valuable for pollsters, information about eating — along with travel and hobbies — are in the second tier of data used to predict how someone might vote, he said.
So, for example, Mr. Mann knows that someone who subscribes to lots of gourmet cooking magazines is more likely to be a Democrat or at least more open to progressive causes. That can help a campaign decide if it’s worth spending money courting that person’s vote.
Although Karl Rove was not the first to use microtargeting in a campaign, he brought it to new levels of sophistication and prominence, dividing swing voters into groups like “tax and terrorism moderates.” The strategy helped send George Bush back to the White House in 2004. Matthew Dowd, the former chief strategist for President Bush who is now a political commentator for ABC, helped orchestrate that effort. The Bush team studied food preferences, among dozens of other traits, as a shortcut to finding independents who might lean Republican, he said.
For example, Dr Pepper is a Republican soda. Pepsi-Cola and Sprite are Democratic. So are most clear liquors, like gin and vodka, along with white wine and Evian water. Republicans skew toward brown liquors like bourbon or scotch, red wine and Fiji water.
When it comes to fried chicken, he said, Democrats prefer Popeyes and Republicans Chick-fil-A.
“Anything organic or more Whole Foods-y skews more Democratic,” Mr. Dowd said.
But consumer information has to be studied in context. “I don’t know how much you can use food or drink alone to determine how they will vote,” he said. “You can’t have a candidate with a Pepsi-Cola and Pizza Hut box and think that’s going to win an election for you.” Jeff Navin, managing director of American Environics, a progressive research and strategy firm, agrees.
“Knowing that your base drinks gin doesn’t give you a clear idea on how to communicate with them effectively on issues,” he said. “But if you take it a level deeper and say, are there psychological drivers that will help understand the values behind the behavior, you can speak to those values and persuade voters.”
Mr. Navin offers an example from his firm’s ongoing survey that periodically asks 1,800 people in-depth questions about their lives. In last summer’s polling, the latest available, Mrs. Clinton scored high among voters who also had favorable views of McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Starbucks.
That led his team to conclude that Clinton supporters put a high value on national brands.
Although the landscape in the Democratic race has shifted since the poll was conducted, Mr. Navin said, back then the name Clinton was the most popular national Democratic brand.
Mark Penn, a microtargeting expert who was dismissed as chief strategist for the Clinton campaign last week, wrote a book on the subject: “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” (Twelve, 2007).
Although Mr. Penn, who claims credit for coining the term “soccer mom,” didn’t specifically seek out research on the dining habits of voters, he does use food as a way to define the candidates.
Specifically, he points to Mr. Obama’s comments about the rising price of arugula at Whole Foods during a campaign stop in Iowa. “He has more of the arugula vote,” he said in an e-mail message last week. “Senator Clinton’s voters are more likely to be making ends meet and so they do a lot more cooking at home and a lot less eating out at expensive restaurants.”
Although Mr. Obama’s team is also using consumer data to target voters, the campaign is focusing more on what one adviser called “macrotargeting.” The idea is to build a unified, all-encompassing Obama brand that works well across all kinds of media platforms. “I would say we’re old-fashioned in that you have to look at America as a whole,” said Bill Burton, Mr. Obama’s national press secretary.
That’s not to say they don’t have specific information about voters, he said. And the campaign isn’t above using food to gain an edge. After the founders of Ben and Jerry’s endorsed Mr. Obama, the campaign blog quickly suggested a new ice cream flavor that plays off of a favorite campaign slogan: Yes, Pecan!
Whether a campaign uses a lot or a little consumer information, it can cause trouble if not interpreted correctly, some political veterans cautioned.
An environmentally minded independent who trends Democratic might buy organic milk, but so might an independent conservative who is more concerned about the health of her children than the state of the earth. They buy the same product, but for different reasons. Send an environmental message to the conservative and you could lose her vote.
That’s why some, notably James Carville, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, see microtargeting as a waste of time and money. Although he believes the cost of food is a fast-rising issue among voters, knowing what they eat doesn’t win elections.
“Suppose I found out people who drink cappuccinos are Democrats and black coffee drinkers are likely to vote Republican?” he asked. “So what? All kinds of other things are more predictive and less expensive to find out.”
Besides, the lines between who eats what continues to blur. Republicans are not necessarily red-meat-eating bourbon swillers, and not all Democrats are carrying their lattes to the farmers’ market.
Mr. Mann recently saw someone on a Metro train in Washington with a Bush/Cheney sticker on his bag reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” Barbara Kingsolver's meditation on eating local food.
Some people who cook and serve food have been students of microtargeting for years. JoAnn Clevenger, the owner of the Upperline restaurant in New Orleans, doesn’t need a data set to identify how customers might vote. She just watches what they order.
“The Republicans are more formal and have more attention to structure when they eat,” she said. The classic example would be her delicate trout meunière.
Democrats tend to order earthy, down-home food with lots of juice for sopping, like Cane River country shrimp with garlic, bacon and mushrooms.
But lately she’s seen a lot of interest from both sides for her Oysters St. Claude. The oysters are coated with corn flour, gently fried and then slipped back into their shells and covered with an adventurous, Morrocan-style sauce seasoned with ground whole lemons, garlic, cayenne and paprika.
It’s the ultimate crossover dish, and she believes it’s popular this year because voters are being pulled in several directions.
“You have a respect and a yearning for the past,” she said, “but a feeling like you want something new and exciting that says let’s go all the way.”