Do Our Food Choices Demonstrate Our Political Preferences?


In 2014, Experian Marketing Services polled 27,000 Americans on the restaurants and supermarkets they like and their political leanings. Guess who liked Whole Foods? SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

What we eat and what we drink may not determine how we vote. But what we snarf down and what we knock down may well tell others which side of the political fracas we fall on.

Figuring that out — sleuthing somebody's party affiliation simply by checking out a person's entree or cocktail of choice — isn't easy, of course. No more than voting is. No more than politics is.

But if you pay attention to food and drink, you might someday get a feel for who's with you. Or against you.

A Taste for Voting

Pavel Yakovlev is an economics professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. A few years ago, he and a colleague set out to find a correlation between alcohol consumption and party affiliation. They took decades of economic data, looked at the alcohol (beer, wine and spirits) consumption of different states, accounted for all sorts of variables and came out with this conclusion:

We find that as states become more liberal over time, they experience higher amounts of beer and spirits consumption per capita. In contrast, we find that as states become more liberal over time, they might consume less wine per capita ...

Yakovlev's research doesn't paint progressives/liberals/Democrats (or their left-leaning states) as alcohol-pounding drinking machines. That much the professor wants to get straight.

"One of the things I don't want people to think," he tells HowStuffWorks, "is that liberals drink more than conservatives."

Yakovlev's study doesn't show that. And it doesn't help us figure out if that beer-drinking neighbor of yours is a Democrat or not, either.

But the numbers in his research clearly show that, on average, states that move toward a more liberal political ideology, over time and on average, drink more beer and hard alcohol than they did before. And they might drink less wine.

It's a start. It's a clue. It's not an answer though.

Cracker Barrel or California Pizza Kitchen? A Restaurant Poll

Research that might help more positively indicate a link between what people eat and drink and how they vote continues to be hard to come by. But there's some out there that furthers the debate.

In 2014, Experian Marketing Services polled 27,000 Americans on the restaurants they like and their political leanings. It turns out that liberals preferred these chain places:

  • California Pizza Kitchen
  • Romano's Macaroni Grill
  • Ruth's Chris Steak House
  • On the Border
  • P.F. Chang's China Bistro

While conservatives went for these:

  • O'Charley's
  • Cracker Barrel
  • Hometown Buffet
  • Papa Murphy's
  • Longhorn Steakhouse

Liberals liked these fast-food joints ...

  • Au Bon Pain
  • Chipotle
  • Qdoba

... while conservatives craving fast food went for:

  • Krystal
  • Whataburger
  • Schlotzky's

Now, what to make of all that? What to make of Yakovlev's research?

For the restaurants, it's important to note that regional influences have at least something to do with the results. California Pizza Kitchen started in a liberal state. O'Charley's and Cracker Barrel are concentrated in conservative states. Others suggest that restaurants with "ethnic" menus tend to trend liberal — Au Bon Pain has a French name, and Chipotle and Qdoba serve Mexican fare — while more traditional "American" menus (burger places Krystal and Whataburger, sandwich joint Schlotzky's) bend conservative.

Again, this doesn't mean that everybody who eats in a Cracker Barrel is a card-toting Republican, or that a conservative can't enjoy a fine meal at P.F. Chang's. But it's more food for thought.

Yakovlev offers three theories about why people of the same political persuasion may gather in the same-type restaurants, eat the same food, drink the same way, even shop at the same supermarket.

One is a theory of conformity: People want to hang out with people who think like they do. And they see certain types of restaurants (or supermarkets) as catering more to "their" people.

Two is a theory of expressive voting: "It's the idea that we as individuals enjoy expressing beliefs and have others observing them," Yakovlev says. "That gives us some form of gratification." If, as happened in 2012 with the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, a restaurant is labeled as being liberal or conservative (Chick-fil-A's management came out with statements against same-sex marriages and supported organizations that were not friendly to LGBTQ rights), those who agree with those viewpoints will eat there to show solidarity. It's the same idea behind "Make America Great Again" caps and "Resist" bumper stickers.

Three is confirmation bias, which theorizes that people will seek information that confirms their way of thinking. If you're liberal and you pull into a Chipotle and see a bunch of "Resist" bumper stickers, you're probably feeling pretty good about your progressive mindset.

Why Do States That Go Liberal Start to Drink More?

For the drinking study, some theorized that states with more liberals start drinking more beer and hard liquor (and, maybe, less wine) for a few reasons. Maybe the people in the state pick up a widely recognized trait of liberals: They become more accepting in this case of more drinking of that sort. Maybe they simply accept that lifestyle.

Or maybe, as some conservatives might paint it, they drink more because they know, in their liberal state, the government will be there with solid health care and better unemployment benefits after all those increased nights of boozing take their toll.

Speculation? When it comes to politics and food, we've got it. Unfortunately, speculation, not facts, are about all we have. If we ever get solid evidence, though ...

"It's a fun question to ask," Yakovlev says. "You could argue that if there is some evidence that our behavior does correlate to our political views, we could say that sometimes profiling works."

The Experian survey looked at supermarket chains, too. The one that conservatives most liked was Randalls, based in red-state Texas. The most liberal, and this probably won't surprise anyone on either side of the political divide, was Whole Foods Markets. Whole Foods was founded in Texas, too, but its high-priced organic and sustainably raised merchandise has become synonymous with progressives.

Not everyone who shops at Whole Foods, obviously, is into vegan burritos and fair-trade coffee, drives a Prius in Birkenstocks and votes straight Democrat.

But yeah, Yakovlev says. "If I see a pattern over and over," he says, "there may be something there."



More to Explore