Why Obama Told Ohio to Go to Taco Bell

The president’s get-out-the-vote pitch shrewdly invoked a chain with centrist appeal.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Monday evening, President Obama filed a new entry in the annals of surreal campaign moments. At a rally for Hillary Clinton and down-ticket Democrats in Columbus, Ohio, the president, normally enough, kicked off his speech with a promise that the crowd would be home in time to watch the Cleveland Indians, who (still) stand one win away from winning their first World Series title since 1948. And then, in spite of his wife’s health initiative, Obama took the extraordinary step of reminding the boisterous crowd that Taco Bell will be handing out free tacos as part of a World Series-themed giveaway.

“And because I’ve been watching the World Series,” Obama said, “I am aware that because [Cleveland Indians shortstop] Francisco Lindor stole second base in Game 1, everybody in America gets a free taco at Taco Bell tomorrow.” The crowd roared with delight and Obama, sensing the moment, pointed down from the podium to single out a guy in the crowd who seemed particularly enthusiastic, saying “I’ve never seen anybody so excited about a free taco.”

Of course, he had a broader point to make. “If you can the find the time to get a free taco,” he went on, “then you can find the time to go vote!” In making his pitch for early voting in Ohio, Obama even suggested uniting the act of voting with getting a free taco: “It’s like a combo meal. You get something good for your soul and then you get something good for your appetite.” Needless to say, both Major League Baseball and Taco Bell appreciated the plug.

While an affinity for free tacos is almost certainly a bipartisan affair, the president’s invocation of Taco Bell was particularly shrewd for a battleground state. According to data collected by Experian Marketing Services in 2014, which surveyed 27,000 Americans about where they eat as well as their political leanings, the California-based chain registers popularity across liberal, conservative, and centrist consumer bases.

In other words, had the president’s pitch involved free Chick-fil-A sandwiches or free corn dogs from Sonic, it might have alienated more liberal consumers. If the president had instead promoted free wraps from Au Bon Pain or free coffee from Starbucks, it might have turned off more conservative diners. Indeed, last year in Ohio, two days after Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign, she stopped for lunch at Chipotle, a brand that is (or perhaps was) most heavily patronized by self-identifying liberals as well as Millennials.

“The Chipotle that Ms. Clinton visited in Maumee, Ohio, at 1385 Conant Street, wasn’t the only food option in the area,” noted The Wall Street Journal at the time. “On the other side of the street was a Taco Bell, which scores high among ‘middle of the road’ Americans in the Experian data—perhaps a more electorally savvy choice for a politician.”

So Democratic strategists take note: Chipotle in the primaries, Taco Bell in the general.