Why There Was Nothing Buffoonish About Mike Pence’s Visit to Chili’s

When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s newly named running mate, tweeted that he and his family had stopped for dinner at a suburban New Jersey Chili’s this weekend before returning home to Indiana, the online ridicule from New York foodies was immediate.

But the joke was on the folks getting a quick laugh at Pence’s expense. Whatever Pence’s actual reasons for picking Chili’s following appearances with Trump in Manhattan—earnest craving, savvy trolling of media elites—it was the perfect restaurant for him to be photographed in (dining on a Quesadilla Explosion Salad, no less). After all, Chili’s may be one of the most the most politically neutral restaurants in the United States.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2014, according Experian Marketing Services Chili’s patrons are almost as likely to be liberal-leaning as conservative. Using a base score score of 100, Experian’s survey of thousands of restaurant patrons found that Chili’s had a score of 99 in the conservative category, falling only to 94 on the liberal side.

Compare that to Chipotle, where Hillary Clinton famously stopped after announcing her candidacy last spring and ordered a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole. Was Clinton trying to send a message? Almost certainly. According to Experian, Chipotle’s liberal score is 145—which, as the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time, means liberals “are 45% more likely than the average American to visit a Chipotle.” (Chipotle’s conservative score, on the other hand, is a mere 88.) At the time, Chipotle was one of the most popular brands in the restaurant trade.

Chili’s may not have the cachet that Chipotle did when Clinton visited, which was before an E. coli outbreak battered the chain’s reputation. Sales at Chili’s are falling, as would-be customers increasingly prefer fast-casual options over casual sit-down establishments. And Chili’s turnaround efforts—like adding a new honey chipotle flavoring to its popular baby back ribs and putting tablets at every table so customers can order without the help of wait staff—has failed to reverse the slide in customer traffic. (You might even say Chili’s could use some help becoming great again!)

So there’s likely one group who may be grateful for Pence’s surprise Chili’s visit: the management at Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s. And they may already be favorably disposed toward him.

See, when the person manning Chili’s Twitter feed wrote, “In case you were wondering, we exclusively support the Margarita Party,” a few hours after Pence’s visit, he or she was lying.

Brinker International Inc. does not share its customers’ seemingly bipartisan leanings. A recent investigation by Eater found that between 2011 and 2014, 89 percent of Brinker International’s political action committee and executive donations went to Republicans.  Things have only changed slightly since then. According to Open Secrets, while contributions from individuals affiliated with Brinker are leaning Democrat in this election cycle, the same is not true for the firm’s political action committee. Over 90 percent of the donations made by the Brinker International Inc. Political Action Committee to other political action committees, House and Senate members, or people running for those offices in the 2016 cycle also went to Republicans, including a $10,000 donation to Team Ryan, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s fundraising operation.

At the same time, Chili’s is kind of like us—it’s trying to make a comeback from hard times. Yet it remains a version of us stuck in the past, even if there are now tablets at the tables. It’s from the era before the craze for purportedly artisanal food, before the broader aversion to fatty, unhealthy meals, and before young professionals’ overwhelming tilt toward urban living. It’s definitely not p.c. Heck, Pence wouldn’t even have found a Chili’s in Manhattan if he’d tried. (There is one in Trump’s home borough of Queens, at John F. Kennedy International Airport.) It’s a place to feel comfortable. And unlike, say, Chipotle, Chili will never lecture its customers on wholesome, healthy food.

In other words, the kinds of voters the Trump campaign hopes to sign on, whether they lean right or (optimistically for Trump) left, may see something of themselves in Chili’s. Aligning oneself with this slightly faded casual-dining giant is about much more than trolling political elites. It’s about declaring common cause. And in this case, that likely comes better from Pence than Trump, part of whose appeal is that he isn’t us.

So Pence gave a business that both needs the publicity and is favorably disposed toward his party a likely boost. At the same time, he communicated something about himself to the kind of Americans the Trump campaign really, really needs.

What a political pro.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.