The Food Voter in 2016

By Celinda Lake and Robert Carpenter

There are many ways to slice and dice the electorate, but it’s rare to find an issue that cuts across party lines, regions and demographic groups. As pollsters, when we find an issue that resonates so strongly but isn’t being addressed in a campaign, it presents an enormous opportunity for the candidate smart enough to jump on it. Reform of our nation’s food system has the potential to bubble up as one of these issues in 2016, and millions of Americans agree that it’s time for our leaders to start talking about food. Their message is simple: this election season, food matters.

A recent survey commissioned by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reinforced the findings of research we conducted last fall — Americans support significant changes to the way we produce food in our nation. A bipartisan, nationwide poll conducted for the Plate of the Union Campaign found broad agreement among voters that the U.S. food system isn’t meeting everyone’s needs, and stronger food policies are needed to ensure all Americans have equal access to healthy, affordable food.

While food is seen as widely available in America, voters across the spectrum think the weakness in our food system is that healthy foods are not as widely available or as affordable — and they identify this is a problem. Access to affordable healthy food is a core value for voters, and they want the next President to take bold steps to reform the nation’s food system.

Our research found that voters’ top priority for changing the food system is to make healthy foods more affordable. They express strong concerns around the food system’s impact on the health of children — 81 percent are very concerned that one third of children will develop type-2 diabetes. In focus groups, voters embraced a call to action for policies that would aid access to healthy foods for all families, regardless of their zip code.

Voters express strong concerns around the disconnect between government recommendations and the policies behind them. Specifically, 81 percent are concerned that the federal government recommends a diet of 50 percent fruits and vegetables while less than 1 percent of farm subsidies go towards fruits and vegetables. Large majorities of voters (75 percent) across party lines favor government incentives to encourage sustainable farming practices that protect the environment. Workers rights also register as a priority for voters — 75 percent are concerned that five of the eight worst paying jobs in America are in the food system.

Food issues prove to be very salient for key groups in the 2016 elections. Younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, unmarried women, as well as non-college educated white men are particularly supportive of changes to the food system that would promote better access to healthy foods. These voters favor government incentives to encourage sustainable farming (including 76 percent of voters under 30; 87 percent of voters between 30 and 39; 85 percent of African Americans; 82 percent of Latinos; 74 percent of unmarried women; and 70 percent of non-college educated white men). They also believe we need to change policies so that we make healthy and nutritious foods more affordable (including 58 percent of voters under 30; 62 percent of voters between 30 and 39; 66 percent of African Americans; 65 percent of Latinos; 50 percent of unmarried women; and a plurality of non-college educated white men).

It’s rare to see such broad agreement on an issue that gets so little attention on the campaign trail, which is where Plate of the Union comes in. Plate of the Union is a collaborative campaign driven by Food Policy Action Education Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance to amplify the voice of Americans who care about food and farm issues. These groups are joining forces to demand that presidential candidates address the enormous problems created by our nation’s broken food system. Our next president may very well be the first candidate to recognize this emerging factor in 2016 — the food voter.

Celina Lake is President of Lake Research Partners.

Robert Carpenter is President of Chesapeake Beach Consulting.

The research cited in this piece was conducted last fall by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research & Consulting.