Where You Eat is Very Political. Just Ask Hillary Clinton

April 14th 2015

Laura Donovan

One day after Hillary Clinton announced her presidential run, she jumped in a van and hit the road for Iowa -- the location of the all-important first caucus of the presidential primary. During a pit stop, Clinton picked up food from a Chipotle location in Ohio. As soon as the story broke, Chipotle began trending on Twitter. Clinton garnered as much attention as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama did when each famously went to the popular chain -- proving that when it comes to campaigns, nothing goes without scrutiny.

So how does a presidential contender select the perfect meal?

Dining out as a presidential candidate is harder than it used to be

Campaigning means traveling all over the country and maintaining a nonstop schedule, all under the watchful eyes of the press and opposing candidates. Today, when presidential candidates stop for food they have to think about what the restaurant's reputation could mean for their own political brand. A presidential contender who goes to Chick-fil-A would likely receive backlash (or praise, depending on your party) for supporting a chain that condemned gay marriage several years ago. Or if a candidate mentions arugula and Whole Foods, like President Obama did when campaigning in 2007, they could be deemed "elitist."

Food choice is also a way to connect to American voters or even voters in a particular state. Towards the end of the 2012 campaign, then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan visited a Wendy's in Ohio. It was no coincidence.

“We figured because Wendy’s was invented in Ohio, what better place to get lunch than Wendy’s, right?” Romney said to employees, according to The Washington Post. (The move doesn't always pan out, Obama still went on to win the popular vote in Ohio by 50.1 percent.)

Long before McDonald's gained a reputation for unsafe worker conditions, low wages, and unhealthy food, Bill Clinton was a loyal fan. Twenty-three years ago, Clinton was known for jogging with reporters to McDonald's, where he'd order hearty meals as a personal reward for exercising (he has since become a vegan). Saturday Night Live even parodied Clinton's comfort food cravings in a 1992 skit. Clinton's food choices were a way to connect to a broader audience. Today's presidential candidates, however, might face some heat for supporting McDonald's for the aforementioned reasons.

So, when trying to balance the political signifiers of food selection, where does a presidential candidate eat?

The Chipotle choice

Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton have all been spotted at Chipotle in the past three years. The chain is well-known for its Food With Integrity policy, which "means serving the very best sustainably raised food possible with an eye to great taste, great nutrition and great value," according to Chipotle's official site. "It means that we support and sustain family farmers who respect the land and the animals in their care. It means that whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones." CNBC denotes it as a "feel-good" brand.

Chipotle, which opened in Colorado 22 years ago and once had McDonald's its largest investor, is adored by many young people. And according to Fusion's Massive Millennial Poll, this demographic strongly supports Hillary Clinton.

"It's symbolic from a political and business standpoint," John Gordon, a principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group told CNN Money of Hillary Clinton's Chipotle visit. "Many people see McDonald's as the brand of yesterday ... whereas Chipotle is perceived as the brand of today."

With its bipartisan patronage of a loved brand, Chipotle seems like a safe choice.

You cannot please everyone

Of course, no choice is entirely perfect, and you can't please everybody. Like many big brands, Chipotle has had prior controversies. Glenn Alexander, an activist with animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, told ATTN: that aligning with Chipotle isn't necessarily a safe bet, due to the the company's reliance on the slaughter of animals.

Alexander pointed out that Hillary Clinton might consider going to a vegan restaurant instead, which would also make sense given her husband's vegan lifestyle. "If Hillary Clinton wants to support businesses with ethical values, those businesses ought to be vegan," Alexander pointed out. "There is nothing ethical about animal agriculture. To support the 'humane' or 'compassionate' exploitation of other beings' bodies is to look for the right way to do the wrong thing."

Yet, vegan dining -- or even healthy dining -- of course would have it's own political baggage. (Remember the Obama arugula incident.)

Sometimes, no matter how diplomatic your lunch is, there will still be backlash. Some people complained that she did not talk to people at the store:

Yet, on the other hand, one could imagine criticism if Clinton had talked to voters, interrupted their lunch, and staged a press event. She knows all too well the power of political eating. During the New York Senate election in 2000, Clinton ate a famous sausage sandwich at the New York State Fair that her competitor Rick Lazio previously declined to eat. Some speculate that Lazio's misstep was two-fold: he failed to get media attention for chowing down on a cultural favorite, and he failed to eat the sandwich. Overall he didn't recognize it as a potentially powerful political moment.

Clinton went on to joke about Lazio's choice not to have the sausage sandwich. "After the other candidate for Senate refused to eat a sausage sandwich there, this one did not," she said. Some say her decision to devour this cultural favorite, among other things, helped send her to the Senate.