NYT: Food Choices Related to Political Ones

Matthew Sheffield
April 16th, 2008 4:21 PM

Can you predict a person's politics based on the food they eat? Yes, according to the New York Times:

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.

All of this may sound a little absurd at first but I think there's some merit to it. Every time I go into my local Whole Foods grocery store, it is basically filled with people who look like stereotypical Democrats. "It's a grocery store for liberals!" one of my sisters quipped when I showed her in the store for the first time. And judging by the profusion of "Peace Cereals" (no joke) and other self-proclaimed environmentally friendly products on the shelves, it seems she's right.

Can you extend that approach to other brand and food choices though? I think you can possibly although maybe a lot of it involves where a person hails from originally since people tend to absorb both the political and cultural tastes of their parents and extended family. Still, we aren't trying to decide cause and effect here more like correlation.

Photo illustration: New York Times.