How a Single Tamale May Have Ended a Campaign And Changed American History

Plus, the Impact of Food on Elections Today

When you’re on the campaign trail, everything you do is scrutinized, even what you eat and how you eat it. It’s never been more true than during this election. The whole world watched as John Kasich aggressively ate his way through New York and  chided Donald Trump when he used a Cinco de Mayo taco bowl to show how much he loves Hispanic people. But Kasich’s eating couldn’t have possibly cost him the election, right? If that were possible, Ted Cruz would have gotten the nomination- he crushed the pizza primary.

Food probably can’t be the only factor that contributes to a candidate’s win or loss, but it may not be totally random. Trump called Kasich’s eating habits ‘disgusting’ on April 25th. Kasich dropped out of the race on May 4th. Of course, this can’t be the only thing that caused it. But it may have played a role.

Dan Pashman explored the topic of eating on the campaign trail on this week’s episode of his podcast The Sporkful. and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee isn’t sure that food can’t play a huge role in politics. He believes it changed the 1976 election. Gerald Ford was running against Jimmy Carter, and on a stop in Texas, Ford had to eat a tamale. He took a bite, but he didn’t take the shuck off. It seems like a minor mistake, but the entire world was watching. It makes Ford look like an idiot, and on a larger scale, it makes it look like he doesn’t really “get” Texas, and what it’s all about. Huckabee recalls, “every newscast in Texas all weekend long, all they did was show Gerald Ford not knowing how to eat a tamale. To this day, I am convinced that it was that gaffe with the tamale that cost him the state of Texas. Carter won Texas, and Carter won the presidency, and it may have been a tamale that did it.”

Why didn’t he just not eat the tamale? Why was he experimenting with anything new on the campaign trail? As it turns out, it’s not that simple. There’s a ton of thought that goes into what the candidates eat, and where and how they eat it. Candidates have staff that plans every detail of every public meal that happens on the campaign trail. Where are you going? Who works there? What are you supposed to order? All of it matters. Food can be the great equalizer or the great divider. When Bernie Sanders folded his pizza and ate it with his hands, it made him a real New Yorker. When Kasich ate it with a fork and knife, it made him an out of touch monster.

Josh King, a former white house aide was on the podcast and told Pashman that how a candidate eats and talks about food is important when a candidate has something to prove. Gaffes like Kasich’s “generally are damaging when they play into preconceived notions people already have about the candidate.” Mitt Romney struggled with this in 2012. In Mississippi, he accidentally called cheese grits “cheesy grits.” At the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, he was grilling pork chops when he accidentally dropped one on the ground. To the public, it looks like fancy-pants Romney doesn’t know what a cheese grit is, and it certainly looks like he’s never grilled anything for himself. It plays directly into the image he needed to shake if he wanted to win.

From place to place and person to person, what you’re supposed to eat and how you’re supposed to eat it can vary. There are two rules, though, that seem unchanging: eat whatever is put in front of you (at least some of it), and never eat a corn dog. That last one is self-explanatory.

Interestingly, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both don’t eat much in front of the press. Maybe they’re onto something.

Listen to the full episode above.


[image via Twitter]

Follow Dana Eisenberg (@danaeisenberg) on Twitter.

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