Food fight: can we have a presidential election without junk food photo ops?

Sam Wolfson

Be in no doubt, the 2020 presidential race has already begun. Its official starting gun was fired not when the umpteenth Democrat declared their candidacy, or when mysterious Pacs started their bizarre attack ads. No, the true sign election season has begun is when the media begins scrutinizing politicians for their food choices.

Kirsten Gillibrand has already been scolded for asking, at a lunch with African American business leaders in South Carolina, whether she should eat fried chicken with cutlery or her hands.

She was quick to attract scorn. The New York Times national political correspondent Jonathan Martin asked whether this could “really be the first time in 50 years she ate fried chicken?” while the New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich responded to the faux pas with a question:

A New York Times piece that said Amy Klobuchar once ate a salad with a comb after an aide forgot to bring any utensils on a plane. After she finished the meal, Klobuchar is said to have admonished the aide and made them wash the comb. There are a number of other, arguably more serious, stories about Klobuchar in the piece that suggest she was “not just demanding but often dehumanizing” as a boss – but it’s the tale about eating and belittlement that has been most often cited, so much so that Klobuchar was forced to joke about it at the Gridiron Club dinner a month later: “How did everyone like the salad? I thought it was OK, but it needed just a bit of scalp oil and a pinch of dandruff.”

The American obsession with what candidates consume goes back almost a century. Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election campaign began with a photograph of him downing a bottle of Coke at his farm in Gettysburg. Ever since, candidates have tried desperately to look like they eat like a regular person, and fallen into all the pitfalls of doing so. Gerald Ford ate a tamale still in its husk, John Kerry ordered too fancy a cheese on his Philly cheesesteak and Sarah Palin, John Kasich, Bill de Blasio and Donald Trump have all at various points eaten pizza with a knife and fork.

Barack Obama eating fries on the 2012 campaign trail.

Barack Obama eating fries on the 2012 campaign trail. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The food that candidates eat must be unhealthy to be American: even while Michelle Obama was encouraging Americans to eat more fruit and vegetables, Barack Obama continued to be photographed tucking into burgers, fries and big sodas at campaign stops.

Related: Bagel-gate: how a food gaffe divided New York’s Democrats | Emma Brockes

One might think that after the coverage of the 2016 election was criticised as having the hallmarks of reality television and very little policy discussion, the focus may have shifted away from how the candidates handle a sandwich.

In fact the opposite has happened, thanks to Instagram in particular providing ever more opportunities for candidates to show how normal they are by eating. Elizabeth Warren drank a beer in her kitchen on Instagram, while Beto O’Rourke has been posting selfies of him eating local delicacies in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Some have detected potential for sexism in these posts. John Buysee, who helped oversee social media for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, tweeted that he was unable to post the kinds of photos O’Rourke does, enjoying a Butterburger, a local favourite, at Culver’s in Wisconsin, because of the double standard around food.

Gillibrand, Harris and Warren do seem to have borne the brunt of critical takes so far, while male candidates seem to have been able to munch away with little critique.

The exception has been Cory Booker, who if he were to win the nomination would become the first vegan to run for a major party in a presidential election.

Booker’s abstinence from meaty treats on the campaign trail could create a precedent for other candidates, to move away from the idea that they are relatable only if they can successfully eat a dead animal using the correct local customs.

But Booker is making no promises to make campaigning more diet-friendly. When asked on The View how he would cope at the Iowa state fair, where both Trump and Clinton were photographed eating a pork chop on a stick, he replied that there would still be “lots of deep-fried stuff that I will be able to eat”.