Why 2016 Came Down to Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel

America is increasingly divided between those who live in cities and those who don’t. A map of the 2016 election looks like a sea of red dotted with islands of blue. Decades of geographic sorting by culture, class, opportunity, and ideology has yielded these two Americas, and nowhere is this reality clearer than in where we eat.

Donald Trump won more than three-quarters of counties with a Cracker Barrel, while winning just 22 percent of counties with a Whole Foods. That 54 percent gap is not an aberration. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has found a similar divide going back over two decades.

While these stores exist in roughly the same number of states, they live in different universes. Whole Foods are often found in denser, more affluent, and better educated neighborhoods. Cracker Barrel restaurants tend to be located in less dense areas off of major highways. They also signal different cultural attachments: one is organic while the other is nostalgic.

The gap between these two communities has grown over time. In 1992, the difference between the share of Whole Foods voters and Cracker Barrel voters supporting the winner in the presidential election was around 19 percent. This election was the first in which this same gap crested 50 percent.

The takeaway here is not simply that buying is correlated with voting. It is that the 2016 election was sharply divided between denser, Democratic-leaning Whole Foods markets and less-dense, Republican-oriented Cracker Barrel communities.

Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel are effective shorthand for America’s remarkable differences in voting preferences by density. Kentucky counties, for instance bleed red outside of Louisville and Lexington. Similar images appear across states such as Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. The denser the county, the more likely its residents voted Democratic in 2016.

Figuring out why this division exists and is growing is a complicated endeavor. But a clue can be found in a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Seventy-seven percent of voters who identified as “consistently liberal” desired smaller houses that were closer together and within walking distance of schools, stores and restaurants. Meanwhile, three-quarters of consistent conservatives preferred living in houses that were “larger and father apart” and didn’t mind as much if amenities were farther away. Just four percent of this voting bloc preferred to live in a city.

Differences in where Americans live reflect the divides in our economy, society, and polity. I have written before on the need for conservatives to speak to urban concerns. But the same pressure exists in reverse for those on the left. Ultimately, both parties will need to reach across geographic divisions to heal our fractured republic.