Barry McNamara  |   Published November 27, 2018

Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel

Political analyst Amy Walter says American polarization can be seen through two food chains.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – One of the nation’s top political analysts told an audience Tuesday night at Monmouth College’s Wells Theater that the political party lines of Democratic blue and Republican red are represented by two popular food chains.

AMY WALTER:  “Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel is the dividing line,” said Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, an online political newsletter that is considered to be one of the best non-partisan news sources for politics. “It’s a good way to encapsulate politics in this country.”

Part of the College’s Midwest Matters initiative, Walter’s talk was made possible by support from Security Savings Bank of Monmouth.

Developed by Walter’s Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman, the Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel theory holds that if voters live in close proximity to a Whole Foods grocery store, they are more likely to vote Democratic; if they live in the vicinity of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, they typically vote Republican.

‘Two Americas’

Walter said that the outcome of the recent midterm elections was a stark reminder that there are “two Americas,” adding that the country is “more geographically polarized than at any time since 1860, and we know that didn’t turn out very well.”

She said that Minnesota is a prime example of the two Americas. Although the state has a fairly even mix of registered Democratic and Republican voters, she said it doesn’t fit the definition of a “purple America.”

“Minneapolis is dark, dark blue,” she said of the metropolitan area of 4 million people. Almost every other area of Minnesota is red politically. “It’s only the total numbers that make the state purple.”

The politics of personality

In this month’s midterm elections, Republican candidates won in states where President Donald Trump won 55 percent or more of the vote in 2016. In states where his margin of victory was smaller or where he lost, Republicans also lost.

“These lines about how people feel about Trump have pretty much stayed true,” she said. “Two Republican candidates currently under indictment both won in the midterm elections … they were both from states where Trump won by 55 percent or more.”

Walter said ideology has become less important than personality to voters.

“We’re tied to parties more than ever, but the parties are weaker than ever,” she said, with the recent presidential election serving as a prime example of personality trumping ideology.

In 2016, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders “was not really a Democrat. Donald Trump was not a Republican,” said Walter. “In a sense, he is our first Independent president. … During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton had all these bullet points. She had all this stuff. Bernie Sanders didn’t have bullet points. Bernie Sanders didn’t have stuff. But Bernie Sanders was the person people found most authentic.”

Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond

Walter touched on potential strategies that both parties might embrace to move forward.

For Republicans, she pointed to Trump’s “narrow” victory, which included winning the electoral college but losing the popular vote. She said a prevailing thought after he won was: “Could he move the (party) lines even more in a way we’ve never seen before? That’s not what he decided to do. He decided he really loved the people who loved him. So he doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on that, catering to his base but not broadening it.”

“We’re tied to parties more than ever, but the parties are weaker than ever.” – Amy Walter

As for Democrats, she cautioned against pinning hopes on regaining the former strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which the Democrats lost by a combined total of about 80,000 votes in 2016.

“How bold do Democrats want to be?” Walter asked.

She said that just aiming to win back those three key states may not be enough, especially if they fail in one state. Instead, Walter suggested that Democrats might look to “expand the playing field” for electoral votes, targeting states with increasingly diverse urban populations, such as Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia.

Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential race, Walter said she has compiled a list of almost three dozen “serious” potential candidates for the Democratic nominee.

“These aren’t crazy names,” she said. “This isn’t Oprah. But of those 35 names, I don’t know who’s going to make it through. I have zero idea.”

What Walter does know is that there will be a very interested – and likely active – observer in the White House during the process to pick the next Democratic presidential nominee.

“Donald Trump will LOVE this primary. He’s not going to be able to help himself. The president will be live-tweeting throughout. And that raises questions for the candidates. Do you ignore him? Do you engage him?”

Walter made a special plea to the many Monmouth students who attended her talk.

“You guys are the ones who have to remake these broken institutions, to create new ones that better reflect this country,” she said. “Please don’t stay on the sidelines. The reaction can’t be to check out and think that everything in politics is rigged. … This tension we’re feeling isn’t a bug of the system. It IS the system. I don’t fear disagreement. What I fear is detachment. The answer isn’t to walk away.”

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