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Do You Vote With Your Coffee Cup?

Natalie Erlich, Special to CNBC.com
Friday, 29 Aug 2008 | 2:35 PM ET

If you are what you eat, could what you drink signal who you’ll vote for this November?

A recent survey found people who get their coffee from Starbucks prefer Barack Obama (44 percent) over JohnMcCain (37.8 percent), while McDonald’s coffee drinkers favor McCain (45.4 percent) over Obama (29.2 percent).

“If I were McCain, I would carry a McDonald’s coffee cup a lot,” says Gary Drenik, president of BIGreserach, which conducted the survey.

McCain made gains with surveyed coffee drinkers in August, as the percentage of people who say they prefer Starbucks slid 14 percent since February. Dunkin’ Donuts, meanwhile, has the highest percentage of customers who remain undecided (22 percent).

This comes at a time when Starbucks is closing 600 underperforming U.S. stores and McDonald’s is rolling out vanilla lattes, café mochas and caramel cappuccinos in select markets like Seattle, Kansas City and Raleigh.

“With the declining number of Starbucks stores, it’s possible the ‘new’ key battleground states may be McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Drenik.

However, the correlations are not causations, as Laura Stoker, an associate professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in political psychology, is quick to point out.

"If you asked people if they chewed bubble gum, that would predict voting behavior," she says. "“It's all silly. There’s no way that preference for coffee is driving people’s voting choices."

Rather, demographics like age, income, race and location come into play, she says.

“A survey [participant] cannot express a preference for Dunkin’ Donuts if they’re not around where they live,” Stoker says. “It’s not just about whether conservatives are drawn into one place or another; the places where Starbucks are located which are urban tend to have a more Democratic constituency.”

While Starbucks shows strength in Western states like Washington, for instance, McDonald’s reach is broader.

“McDonald’s is your middle American coffee drinker,” Drenik says.

Coffee prices may also play a factor. A standard coffee at McDonald’s sells for $1.08-$1.71 compared to Starbucks’ $1.90-$2.28 price tag. Likewise, Starbucks lattes start at some $3.50 to nearly $5.

“Perhaps people who prefer higher quality coffee [like Starbucks] want a higher quality president,” says Jeff Goad, a booking manager at a performing arts venue in New York City who plans to vote for Obama.

What does Starbucks have to say?

“As a global company, Starbucks refrains from entering into political debate,” says Tara Darrow, a Starbucks spokesperson. “Our goal is to provide the Starbucks experience to all of our customers—regardless of their personal affiliations or political views.”

And then there are the coffee drinkers who fall outside the average:

“I love McDonald’s coffee first and then Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Sandra Thomas, a nurse from New York City. “I don’t care for Starbucks and I prefer Barack Obama.”

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