Throughout the 2016 election, Eater's column Politics Plated will investigate the surprisingly interconnected relationship between politics and the food industry. In this installment, a look at how the Clinton and Trump campaigns spend their money on food.
What and where a candidate eats, or how they're seen eating, can be a divisive political gesture: Food can be a way to connect with voters through something that reflects their culture, values, or background. Who could forget Donald Trump's infamous taco bowl tweet for Cinco De Mayo, in which he claimed he "loves Hispanics"? Or when Hillary Clinton boasted on the urban radio show The Breakfast Club that, like Beyonce, she too carries hot sauce around? Not to mention the numerous times presidential candidates have stopped by American diners or local restaurants to meet, greet, and eat in the public eye.
"Pandering" aside, it turns out that what Clinton and Trump eat behind-the scenes of their campaigns — and what they feed their teams — is much more relatable. We sifted through the candidates' campaign spending data going back to January 2015, courtesy of the Federal Elections Commission, to get an idea of what Clinton, Trump, and their staff eat with campaign money. The results show the two camps have radically different, but everyday tastes.
The data pinpoints why politicians have to be careful about where they spend their campaign dollars: Otherwise, they could end up supporting a business that is actually working against their political interests or supporting the opposing party.
Take Clinton. Her campaign has spent $4,660 at Jimmy John's since January 2015, even though the chain’s founder James Liautaud is an outspoken conservative who, according to FEC data, has donated $2,700 to the Carly Fiorina campaign and has given more than $70,000 to various Republicans, including former presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. (His sandwiches were even the go-to meal during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.)
That kind of accidental-conflict-of-interest spending can also happen when candidates eat at restaurant chains that have political action committees (PACs), company-official groups that donate to candidates and political causes. Clinton’s campaign spent $3,600 on Dunkin’ Donuts, even though, according to an earlier Politics Plated piece that looked at PAC data, Dunkin’ has given $41,000 to Republicans. Clinton’s pizza-loving campaign also ordered food from Pizza Hut 12 times, even though the Hut is owned by Yum! Brands, which has a PAC that has donated nearly $200,000 to Republicans and the Republican party (though nothing directly to presidential candidates).
Avoiding potential conflicts of interest is easier for Trump’s camp. Many top restaurant PACs lean Republican, so the Trump campaign's craving for fast food, including Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell, is more in line with those brands' interests. From our list of politically-leaning food chains, only two companies came out as Democratic: Chipotle and Starbucks, and neither has a PAC. Instead, both places have liberal-leaning CEOs and employees who have donated thousands of dollars to democrats. Though the Trump campaign has visited both places multiple times, many of the restaurants topping his list of most-visited lean Republican.
Next to Trump-owned restaurants like the Trump Grill (where the Republican nominee bought the infamous taco bowl), McDonald’s is Trump’s most-visited restaurant chain. Trump and his staff ate at McDonald’s 16 times in the last year; accounting for just a few of the thousands of dollars spent on fast-food and quick meals at airports and hotels. The numbers stemming from Trump's camp, however, reflect the candidate's unconventional campaign — throughout the primary season, Trump did not have what would be considered traditional campaign infrastructure (in terms of staff, offices, and volunteers), resulting in fewer total expenditures.
Yet Trump spent more on food than Clinton. While Clinton's camp technically spends eight times more in total on food than Trump for a staff of almost 700 — compared to Trump's staff of 70 — Trump spends more per staff member. (Those staff numbers, also provided by the FEC, do not count volunteers, who may eat meals paid for by campaign funds.) That difference in spending might be due to the Clinton campaign's big-box approach to food. Clinton's most-visited list includes Domino's Pizza and groceries from Walmart, Target, and Costco. She also appears to be paying staff members to buy food for themselves, with more than 40 percent of receipts for campaign spending on food going to individuals and staff members.
What and where Clinton and Trump eat in the public eye may be a way to connect with voters. But how they use campaign funds to feed themselves, their staff, and potential donors shows also how radically different the candidates — and their supporters — can be.