Don’t Play With Your Food: Reconsidering The "Cracker Barrel v. Whole Foods" Meme

According to David Wasserman of the Washington Post, every presidential election has its cultural divisions:

The 1896 presidential contest, for instance, is remembered as a battle between William Jennings Bryan’s populists and William McKinley’s industrialist supporters. The 1972 election pitted Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” against George McGovern and the counterculture.

First off, I’m not so sure the primary distinction between populists and industrialists in late 1800s was cultural.  The dominant issues in 1896—tariffs, the gold standard and free silver—were economic, after all.  But the overarching issue I have with Wasserman’s article is his attempt to superimpose a simple cultural narrative onto a set of more complex (but understandable) political issues.  But still, let's indulge the issue: What cultural cleavage will dominate 2012?

In 2012, the campaign might be a contest between these alternate universes of culture and cuisine: Whole Foods Markets and Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores.

Now food can be political: just look at variation in the reputation of Godfather’s Pizza among Republicans and Democrats.  But “Whole Foods voters” versus “Cracker Barrel voters”?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  What’s frustrating (aside from its crude simplicity) is that this meme obscures more important underlying dynamics in American politics.  But worse, in my eyes, is that this cultural dichotomy is unoriginal.  Close your eyes for a moment and envision a “NASCAR Dad" (a popular meme from 2004).  Now envision whatever a “Cracker Barrel voter” is.  Any difference? Didn't think so.

Once my antipathy subsided I wondered what other political foods or food chains exist. Do other food chains correlate better with our dominant socio-political divisions?  (side note: this is a great example for the old adage that "correlation does not equal causation"). I propose there are: Chick-fil-a and Ben and Jerry’s.  In fact, if one could somehow scale the political ideologies of restaurant chains my money’s on these two to anchor the extremes.  Chick-fil-A, afterall, gave Tea Party Protestors free iced tea on April 15th, has donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay rights groups and is closed on Sundays so their employees can “rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.”  Ben and Jerry, by contrast, are two self-described “liberal lefties” who fed ice cream to 600 Occupy Wall Street protestors and adopt (gasp) fair trade practices.  In short, these two chains exhibit clear ideological differences (rather than simply correlate with it).

So let’s see how my meme stacks up against Wasserman’s.  I coded Google Trends data for the states with the top 10 search results for each of the four chains.  I merged that with Obama’s share of the two-party vote.  Here are the results.

It appears that my typology stacks up favorably—if not better—than the supposed Cracker Barrel / Whole Foods divide.  By my count Obama received 64% of the two-party vote in top 10 states for Ben and Jerry’s searches and only 62% in the top 10 states for Whole Foods searches.  Clearly this difference isn’t statistically significant, but it’s a marginal improvement.  By contrast, Obama only received 46% of the two-party vote in top 10 states for Chick-fil-A searches and 50% in top 10 states for Cracker Barrel searches.*

What’s truly sad is that the effort involved in this simple task was minimal (about 3 minutes of serious thought and 15 minutes of coding and writing).  Why waste even 18 minutes?  First, it's fun!  But seriously, I get sick of hearing about “NASCAR Dads” (2004, 2006 elections), “Soccer Moms” (1994, 1996, and 2000 elections), “Hockey Moms” (2008 election), etc.  Let’s not over think this one and try to superimpose some catchy meme on basic political phenomena.


Note 1: Of course there are perfectly good explanations for these effects.  And to his credit, Wasserman notes one study: Bishop’s “The Big Sort”, which argues that Americans are geographically sorting into homogenous clusters (and the factors which drive this clustering correlate with political ideology).  Sean Theriault in his excellent book, “Party Polarization in Congress” notes that this phenomenon has caused greater partisan polarization in Congress (it has contributed about 30% to the polarization in Congress to be exact).

Note 2: See Seth Masket on the same topic.  His thoughts on this issue can be summarized in his one word response: "Sigh..."

* If we remove DC from the results the difference is a 1% advantage for Cracker Barrel .  Ben and Jerry's performs best regardless.