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Democrats are divided along coffee lines

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 18, 2008

WESTWOOD - Yes, Tina Powderly is a Democrat, and yes, on this particular day she did happen to be at a Starbucks, and yes, all right, she does support Barack Obama.

But no, Powderly does not consider herself a "Starbucks Democrat." She resists the term, with its suggestion that she has little in common with "Dunkin' Donuts Democrats," who are seen as more likely to back Hillary Clinton.

"I don't think it does justice to the kinds of issues Democrats are weighing as we try to choose between these two candidates," maintained Powderly, a 34-year-old health-care consultant from Franklin. "It can't be reduced to white-collar versus blue-collar. It's a lot more complicated."

Perhaps, but coffee and class have merged into political shorthand as commentators, campaign operatives, and bloggers alike try to make sense of this highly caffeinated campaign season. In several primaries and caucuses, Obama has shown strength among white-collar professionals with a college degree - the so-called "Starbucks Demo crats" - while Clinton has won support from blue-collar workers with a high school degree, dubbed "Dunkin' Donuts Democrats."

But what do the customers at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts think of these labels? It depends on whom you ask. During interviews at a Starbucks in Westwood and at a Dunkin' Donuts in Millis, some customers rejected the idea of being defined by the coffee they drink. There was evidence, however, of a political schism.

Steve Szylkonis, a Dunkin' Donuts loyalist and a Clinton backer from Medfield who works as a housekeeper, witheringly described Starbucks customers and Obama backers - whom he seemed to view as one and the same - as "the six-figure people."

"The people who go to Starbucks want to try the new things and not rely upon the old-time things that have proven their worth," said Szylkonis, 54, standing outside the Dunkin' Donuts in Millis. "If they used their brains before they voted, they'd vote for Hillary. But if they want to be in with the in-crowd, they'd vote for Obama."

Lisa Richards, 50, an employment consultant and Obama supporter from Medway who was buying coffee at the Westwood Starbucks, acknowledged that the notion of "Starbucks Democrats" and "Dunkin' Donuts Democrats" rests on a sliver of truth. "There are splits," Richards said. "There are issues that divide out by socioeconomic status. But on the whole, I think people are worried about the same things."

Perhaps it's not surprising that coffee has been percolating throughout this election cycle. The language of politics constantly evolves to keep up with shifting cultural dynamics. The past decade has brought to the fore such categories as "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads," and "security moms." As far back as December 1999, an article by Joshua Micah Marshall in The American Prospect alluded to "sushi-and-Starbucks Democrats" who were supporting candidate Bill Bradley.

Then, as the 2004 presidential primaries got underway, UMass-Amherst journalism professor Ralph Whitehead became one of the first to add Dunkin' Donuts to the linguistic equation. Whitehead's intention, he said, was to describe a long-standing demographic division in the Democratic Party between "somebody who might sit in a Starbucks with a latte and a laptop, and somebody who might grab Dunkin' Donuts coffee on the drive-through and get back on the snowplow."

While he acknowledged that, as with all generalizations, such distinctions don't always hold true, Whitehead said the categories serve as useful markers in the current Democratic campaign. In his view - echoed recently by Chris Lehane, a former top aide to Al Gore - Starbucks Democrats are lined up behind Obama, and Dunkin' Donuts Democrats generally support Clinton.

"The Dunkin' Donuts voter has some pretty clear-cut bread-and-butter needs that Obama and Clinton have to respond to," said Whitehead. "The Starbucks voter is probably not as hard pressed. I'm guessing there are not a lot of Starbucks Democrats whose mortgages are in foreclosure, whose factory job has been outsourced, whose health insurance has been cut off."

What do the namesake firms themselves think of their absorption into the political vernacular? Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment, but Stephen J. Caldeira, chief communications and public affairs officer for Canton-based Dunkin' Brands Inc., said in a statement that "Dunkin' Donuts represents hard-working, busy Americans - across all political parties - who truly keep this country running each and every day. We are flattered that political leaders and commentators have recognized our brand for representing the values of this demographic."

And maybe a few politicians, too: It should be noted that Obama brought Dunkin' Donuts coffee to volunteers on Feb. 12, the morning of primaries in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. That night, after Obama won all three contests, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile noted that Obama fared well "with the Dunkin' Donut Democrats as well as the Starbucks Democrats. That's important in terms of putting together a winning coalition."

Tina Powderly, for her part, forms a kind of one-woman coalition. As the Starbucks barista called out "nonfat hazelnut latte for Tina," and Powderly gladly took it, she wanted to make one thing clear. "I get my coffee at either place," she said.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

Two cups to go

Political pundits are using coffee brands to identify voting blocs. As they see it, "Starbucks Democrats" typically support Barack Obama, with "Dunkin' Donuts Democrats" for Hillary Clinton.

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