On Sunday, Hillary Clinton officially kicked off her 2016 presidential campaign with a video. She then got in a van and began to drive from her home in the New York City suburbs to Iowa, where the first nominating caucuses in the country are held and where she lost badly in 2008. The drive from Chappaqua to Iowa can easily take more than 12 hours, and human beings typically require food more frequently than that if they wish to avoid the discomfort associated with hunger. Consequently, Clinton's van stopped on the way, and she ordered a burrito bowl from Chipotle.
Literally hundreds of articles have been written about this.
On one level, the mass attention paid to Clinton's trip to Chipotle is just a huge waste of everyone's time. But in a larger sense, it is a window into politics, culture, food, technological transformation, and the unique attributes of the 2016 Democratic Party nominating contest.
What is Chipotle?
Chipotle is the best-known and most successful exemplar of a dining trend in the United States that's typically called fast-casual by the business press. The idea, more or less, is that a fast-casual restaurant features the style of service associated with traditional fast food chains (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, etc.) but offers a higher quality of food at a higher price point. According to some leading business journalists, the company's innovations in the culinary sector should be recognized alongside those of Apple and other high-tech firms.
In essence, Chipotle appeals to the growing influence of foodie culture in the United States. People are willing to pay somewhat more than a meal would cost at McDonald's and accept a more limited form of service than you could get at Olive Garden, in exchange for food that is a little bit tastier but still quick.
Part of Chipotle's success in this segment is that its marketing involves an emphasis on things like organic and humanely raised meat, values that resonate with foodie types. Last but by no means least, Chipotle's business model is well suited to small-footprint stores (which doesn't really work for, say, Chili's), which has made it very successful in urban areas. This all adds up to giving Chipotle's customer base a distinctly liberal skew.
Can you give me a timeline of the key beats of this story?
- On the afternoon of Sunday, April 12, Hillary Clinton kicked off her campaign with a launch video.
- Later that evening she took off in her van, a Chevy Express Explorer Limited SE, customized by the Explorer Van Company in Indiana.
- At around 4 pm on Monday, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times got the scoop that Clinton had stopped at a Chipotle.
Manager Charles Wright at Chipotle wasn't aware clinton was There till I called him. He pulled the security photo pic.twitter.com/wCIJlVpm9a— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 13, 2015
- On Tuesday, the New York Times published a follow-up story headlined "Hillary Clinton's Chipotle Order: Above Average," even though the NYT does not in fact know what she ordered.
- On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a follow-up story "Clinton bypasses centrist Taco Bell for liberal Chipotle" noting the different partisan allegiances of various fast-food chains.
- Also on Wednesday, Bloomberg broke the "story" that Clinton did not leave money in the tip jar.
- On Thursday, Michael Kruse published a Politico profile of the people who worked at the Chipotle where Clinton ordered her burrito bowl.
- Also on Thursday, Jaime Fuller of New York Magazine did a funny meta-piece tallying all the Chipotle coverage.
- Late Thursday evening, Arlette Sanz and Michael Falcone of ABC further advanced the narrative with "Jeb Bush takes a jab at Hillary Clinton: 'I don't need to go to Chipotle.'" This story then got widely aggregated, giving the whole saga new legs.
Did Jeb Bush really attack Hillary Clinton for getting a burrito?
What actually happened is that Bush was campaigning at a GOP event at the Snow Shoe Club in Concord, New Hampshire, when he was asked if he ever goes to Chipotle. He said, "Do I go there? Yeah, I go there. The one on US 1. Drive my own car, park my own car, get out of my own car."
This was, if anything, a shot at Clinton for living a sheltered existence in which she is driven around by the Secret Service. In reality, however, ABC reports that after leaving the event Bush got into the passenger seat of a black SUV.
However, after saying that just like Clinton he sometimes goes to Chipotle, Bush followed up by bragging about his cooking: "We normally cook our own food, my own Mexican food, at home. It’s pretty good."
For context, the nearest Chipotle to the Snow Shoe Club in Concord is more than a 30-minute drive away, in Manchester, so Chipotle may seem more exotic to Concord Republicans than it does to normal people.
Is the food Chipotle serves really Mexican?
No. A dish called a "burrito" based around a flour tortilla is served in northern Mexico, but rice-filled burritos of the sort offered at Chipotle originate in San Francisco.
Why is the press spending so much time covering such a dumb story?
The basic issue is that media outlets have hired a lot of staffers to cover the 2016 campaign, but there is, as of yet, not that much campaign to actually cover. Most of the candidates have not released anything in the way of policy proposals to write about, and the different Republican contenders aren't really even engaging with one another on a superficial level.
The problem is intensified by the fact that Clinton is the most famous candidate and the one in which there is the most interest, but she's not really even engaged in a competitive primary campaign.
Even if there were important, substantive campaign stories to cover, the press would find plenty of time and oxygen for totally pointless ones. But with no important stories to write, unimportant ones are spreading like kudzu.