“You can’t find this place out where I live,” laments a middle-aged man from Arlington to a white-haired shopkeeper at Manassas’s Cracker Barrel on a recent Saturday. Over the store’s speaker system, a country singer croons about going back to the way things were. In the dining room, a heaping plate of the restaurant’s signature “Chicken n’ Dumplins” sells for $7.39. More than a dozen pickup trucks — and just six European cars — dot the parking lot less than a mile from the Civil War battlefield.
The same day, 26 miles closer to Washington, an attendant herds four Toyota Priuses and eight German luxury cars around a parking lot at Clarendon’s Whole Foods, the nerve center of a posh neighborhood that has spawned three boutique cupcakeries and two frozen-yogurt shops in the past two years. Inside, a quart of organic pomegranate juice runs $10.99. Large placards celebrate Whole Foods’ seven “core values,” its five-step animal-welfare rating system and a three-color “eco-scale” for household cleaning products.
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.
“Politics is aligned with lifestyle right now, not policy,” says Texas journalist Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” “Food used to be political because it represented a class of farmers or workers. Now it represents certain tastes.”
So, if Whole Foods is blue and Cracker Barrel is red, do they have anything in common?
Actually, quite a bit. Both chains have proved remarkably adept at selling themselves, without relying on television ads, as “local” and “close to home.” Their durability in rough economic times testifies to their ability to market not just a brand, but a way of life. Both chains also have a knack for popping up in their customers’ favorite vacation spots. There are Cracker Barrels in the family oases of Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., but no Whole Foods nearby. Whole Foods glimmers in elite spa and ski destinations such Maui, Hawaii, and Park City, Utah, while Cracker Barrel usually shuns beaches and bunny slopes.
True to the leanings of its constituents, Cracker Barrel’s political giving tilts conservative. In the 2010 elections, recipients of its corporate PAC contributions were a who’s who of Republican candidates, including tea party luminaries such as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.). Nine House Democrats received smaller contributions; all ranked among the most conservative Democrats in Congress and voted against health-care reform.
Whole Foods’ politics are more difficult to discern. In August, company Co-President Walter Robb joined dozens of other corporate chiefs in signing a pledge to abstain from political contributions until lawmakers “stop the partisan gridlock in Washington.” But the libertarian views of iconoclastic Whole Foods founder and chief executive John Mackey, who swears by yoga and Ayn Rand, cast a long shadow.
In August 2009, Mackey picked a fight with the left on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, where he lambasted health-care reform and offered “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.” In retaliation, the United Food and Commercial Workers encouraged a boycott of the non-union grocery, and the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition launched a Whole Foods “buycott” to express support for Mackey.
Still, Whole Foods means “liberal elite” in the minds of many. In 2007, Obama undermined his campaign’s efforts to move beyond his professorial image when he asked an Iowa farm crowd: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” Iowa didn’t have a Whole Foods — yet.
The political divide between Whole Foods shoppers and Cracker Barrel patrons doesn’t mean that either side is above poaching from the other. Glen Bolger, a founding partner of Public Opinion Strategies — a leading Republican polling firm whose Alexandria headquarters is less than a mile from a Whole Foods where he shops — knows that its constituency is vital.
“I’m not concerned about Republicans winning Whole Foods counties,” Bolger says. “I’m concerned about holding losses down.”
Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who lives and works in Montgomery, Ala., counts Cracker Barrel as “one of our favorite family restaurants, especially when we travel.” But in 2012, he says, the election may come down to who can take the upwardly mobile, socially conscious “Target voters” who are “happy to be out of the aisles of Wal-Mart” — a national chain accused of treating its workers poorly — but who “fear the middle class slipping away.”
Pollsters and corporate marketers increasingly think alike. The expansion of Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel in the 1990s coincided with a marketing craze that divided America into small, targetable groups of like-minded people. According to Nielsen’s Zip code segmentation system — which counts 66 distinct and cleverly named consumer groups — most Whole Foods are in Zip codes with high populations of “Young Digerati” and “Blue Blood Estates,” while most Cracker Barrels sprout amid high concentrations of “Country Squires” and “Shotguns and Pickups.” Political microtargeting, a technique that President George W. Bush’s team pioneered to pinpoint persuadable voters in 2004 and Obama adapted in 2008, is an extension of this thinking. Whether you’re selling kale or a political candidate, the strategy is the same: Divide and conquer.
“There’s an increasing alignment between brand personality and political personality,” says Alex Lundry, vice president and director of research for TargetPoint, a GOP microtargeting firm. “That’s what makes the microtargeting we do so powerful.”
And it becomes self-sustaining. After Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel locate near consumers who can make stores profitable, “those stores become a magnet for consumers who think alike,” Lundry says.
How could each party bridge the gap? Should Democrats spend time courting evangelical environmentalists who might shop at Whole Foods in Colorado Springs, Colo., or Mason, Ohio? Should Republicans reach out to growing Latino communities in Cracker Barrel towns such as Sanford, N.C., or Allentown, Pa.?
It’s a tough call for Mark Penn, Democratic pollster and author of “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.” At Whole Foods, Republicans might look to pick off “those that are going to the meat counter rather than the fish counter,” he says. “Whole Foods has some high-income voters, and taxes on the wealthy are going to clash with ‘fresh and natural.’ ”
Meanwhile, gettable Cracker Barrel customers for Democrats would probably be aging “early birders” — Obama could convince these seniors that Social Security and Medicare would be at risk with the GOP in the White House.
In the quest to attract independent voters who make or break close elections, 2012 could become a showdown over the rare suburban outposts where Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel coexist. One such place is Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb where the two stores face off near Exit 20 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Who lives there? According to Nielsen’s market analysis of this Zip code, it’s “Domestic Duos”: middle-income, older, married couples who shop at Kohl’s to save cash and drive moderately priced Chevy Impalas, but who also have disposable income to sail Norwegian Cruise Line. Next year, both parties will spend millions to win this persuadable segment of voters — and bridge the organic-nostalgic divide. But as that divide widens, they may find that the persuadable slice of the electorate is narrower than ever.
David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report.