Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel — the former founded in 1980 in Austin, the latter in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn. — have grown into multibillion-dollar empires, each with hundreds of locations. If Whole Foods follows through on plans to develop new stores in Idaho, Iowa and New Hampshire next year, each chain will count locations in 42 states. But even as these stores appear everywhere, their cultural orbits could hardly be more politically divergent.
Every election has its cultural divides. 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.
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.
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama carried 81 percent of counties with a Whole Foods and just 36 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel —a record 45-point gap. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore won 58 percent of counties now containing a Whole Foods and 26 percent of those now boasting a Cracker Barrel, a 32-point difference. And in 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton won 60 percent of Whole Foods counties and 40 percent of Cracker Barrel counties — a mere 20-point margin.
This growing divide signals shifts in the electorate. In the 2008 primary, Obama was able to overcome Hillary Rodham Clinton partly because the Democratic Party had become more Whole Foods than Cracker Barrel. While Clinton swept rural, older, lower-income Cracker Barrel counties such as Belmont, Ohio, and Knox, Ky., Obama dominated younger, higher-income, higher-educated Whole Foods enclaves including Multnomah, Ore., Portland’s county, and Charlottesville. Ten years earlier, Clinton’s coalition might have been enough to bury Obama, but the party’s metamorphosis sunk the former first lady.
In the 2010 midterm elections, the culinary divide was even more apparent: Eighty-two percent of congressional districts that flipped from Democratic to Republican were home to a Cracker Barrel, and just 20 percent of these districts had a Whole Foods. Though Whole Foods refused to comment for this story, Cracker Barrel says there’s no connection. “Politics don’t play any role in our site selection process,” said Julie Davis, a spokeswoman for the company.