Buyers of Smart cars and Fiats tend to identify as Democrats. New Porsche owners are more likely than buyers of any other brand to identify as Republicans, according to a survey conducted by Strategic Vision, a San Diego brand consultant. (Maserati rates even higher with Republicans, but the sample size wasn’t large enough to be statistically meaningful, the company says.) Another survey, by Resonate, a consultant in Reston, Virginia, shows that Bernie Sanders supporters are 82 percent more likely than the average American to eat at Chipotle, while Donald Trump fans are 111 percent more likely to grab a bite at Sonic. Marco Rubio’s backers are 141 percent more likely to have stayed at a Ritz-Carlton.
Traditionally, consumer data have been used by campaigns to better understand where they should invest their ad dollars, or which potential voters and donors they should have volunteers cold-call.
Increasingly, candidates are also using the sentiment to figure out how to present themselves to voters. When the Rubio campaign released its most recent campaign finance filing, it included a paragraph describing its brand loyalty: “The Rubio campaign’s new Federal Election Commission report also details how the campaign took 431 Uber rides and spent enough fueling up at Chick-fil-A to have eaten 1,348 nuggets.” The message was clear: Rubio rides in an Uber and enjoys chicken nuggets! Similarly, Hillary Clinton stopped at a Chipotle in Ohio to pick up a burrito bowl for lunch the day after announcing her presidential campaign. “It’s a safe bet to say, ‘Hey, I’m just like you,’ ” says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision. “ ‘I put my pants on, I button my shirt, so we’re the same. You can vote for me.’ ”
Jeb Bush was photographed taking an Uber in San Francisco last summer. (The driver, interviewed later by reporters, said he intended to support Clinton.) Cruz frequently characterizes himself as the Uber of Washington—a disruptive force. “Uber defines a candidate approach with regard to the new ‘gig’ economy,” says Tim Albrecht, a public-relations consultant who advises Republican candidates, including Bush. “If you favor this new economic reality, you seek the ‘Uber-ization’ of things.” Conversely, Albrecht says, “if you’re a candidate who views Uber as a challenge to the old guard, you’ll seek to take a ‘cautious approach,’ which is a dog whistle for more regulations and government involvement.”
Sanders and Clinton supporters are more likely than most Americans to stay at Sheraton hotels; a person who appears in consumer data as a Sheraton customer is a better target than someone who stays at Hampton Inn (a favorite among Ted Cruz backers). “I’m old enough to remember when to become a preppy you had to spend four years at Andover,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. “Now you spend an afternoon at Abercrombie & Fitch or J.Crew. It’s the extension of the same principles that make brands efficient ways of representing the features of the products—they can also be an efficient way of evoking the features of their users.”
Chick-fil-A is one of several brands that have acquired a partisan affiliation. In 2012, Dan Cathy, the Atlanta-based chain’s chief executive officer, commented in a radio interview that “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation” by legalizing same-sex marriage. The restaurant became a cause célèbre for Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who asked their supporters to patronize the chain to show their solidarity with other opponents of gay rights.
Brand associations can go both ways. In 2012, after the Obama administration’s bailout of General Motors, the company’s plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt—which benefited from special government support—was labeled an “Obamamobile” by the American Tradition Partnership, a conservative group that opposes regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The car became shorthand for the bailout among Republicans who opposed it. Mitt Romney called the car “an idea whose time has not come.” Newt Gingrich had his own complaint: “You can’t put a gun rack in a Volt.” Republicans tend to favor Chevy pickups, but survey data at the time by CNW Marketing Research showed that fewer than 14 percent of Volt buyers identified as Republicans. Dan Akerson, then GM’s CEO, complained in congressional testimony that the political criticism had hurt sales: “We did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.”
The great uniter among consumer brands right now? The numbers show it’s the Apple iPhone, according to Strategic Vision’s Edwards. The “iPhone is nonpartisan,” he says. “They speak to everybody.” But, he adds, at least one liberal teenager he knows doesn’t feel as warmly toward the Apple Watch, which she associates with “old conservatives.” The sample? “My daughter, who drives a Volkswagen convertible Beetle with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker.”