— -- Every bright-eyed presidential candidate deserves some top-shelf data at the start of the campaign. Alone in his hotel room, hoarse and exhausted, he lays it like a bridal trousseau: a portrait of just the kind of voter he's courting.
For Mitt Romney, the acquisition and cultivation of data was time and money well spent. Having all but clinched the Republican nomination with his win in Wisconsin this week, the ludicrously handsome Mormon chief executive has coalesced something that might credibly be called Romney's America. And he did it with data—digital, hypergranular data, not mere polling. Back in January when Gingrich and Santorum were still on his heels, Romney set loose a team of metadata-crunchers to find out who was persuadable. Who belonged to his righter-wing rivals. Who was sticking with Barack Obama.
That's how he came to learn about his people's online browsing habits. As The New York Times reported this week, would-be Romniacs evidently like to take online quizzes. They also poke around the Internet looking for lore on technology, literature, home repair and child care. To find out still more, the campaign brought on board a private company that uses data about browsing habits to craft advertising tailored to individual Web users.
But for its capacity to sum up the vibe of the Romney voter, no data point has been more resonant than the one that surfaced back in January, when the L.A. Times cited it: Williams-Sonoma. That's the housewares emporium that Romney people seem to favor. With that bit of information came the invaluable concept of “Williams-Sonoma Republicans”—a handy way to envision the well-heeled, home-owning families who are unhappy with Obama, amenable to Romney's message and eager to keep shopping for, you know, Williams-Sonoma stuff.
Tortilla warmers. Walnut muddlers. Four-person raclettes.
Williams-Sonoma Republicans—what a phrase! Snatching consumerism back from the “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving” Howard Dean liberals who drew disdain for their spending habits back in 2004, the Williams-Sonoma Republicans are rich, pro-business and tasteful. Not bad.
Certainly the actual Williams-Sonoma has quietly convened a big, proud set of Americans who strongly identify with the brand. If Williams-Sonoma people were also Romney people, a canny campaigner could—in part—ride the Williams-Sonoma research wave, and designate in the brand's consumers a silent majority—silent, this time, because they're busy shopping for tumblers and wedding gifts.
When Romney's iPhone-wielding team started mining and sluicing the data, the campaign figured out that potential Romney voters were flush. The people they went on to micro-target with special phone calls had household incomes of between $75,000 and $150,000.
Romney's team leveraged this info with what the L.A. Times called a “sophisticated and relentless” voter contact program. In other words, they called the heck out of rich people. Still more microtargeting was made possible when the research zeroed in on Williams-Sonoma.
It's a reasonable guess that Romney's America is in possession of unforeclosed houses—those non-condo, non-trailer, non-apartment things with big kitchens—into which they plow a goodly amount of their nice annual incomes.
And they don't just pay the mortgage. Romney people seem to be devotees of the ideology of foodie-ism—the peculiar institution of the modern high-middle class that combines hedonism, sanctimony and hand-over-fist consumerism. How else to cover the vast smooth granite plains of American countertops except with juicers and Panini presses and Beaba Babycook baby food makers from Williams-Sonoma?
Williams-Sonoma caters to married people and people getting married. Its customers like personal property. They own real estate. Unlike latte-drinkers and sushi-eaters, they take their entertainments mostly at home. They're exceptionally house proud. And they're also concerned with health, to the extent that food preparation is implicated. (Joe Cross, of the popular weight-loss documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” preaches juicing in a lavish video franchise called “Reboot Your Life” on Williams-Sonoma.com.)
A passion for Williams-Sonoma might even speak to a religious affiliation, associated with family gatherings and non-urban spaces. Lately the Williams-Sonoma site has an Easter cover. “Celebrate the best of Spring with an elegant sit down dinner,” reads the cover line to a photo of a trussed roast. The Williams-Sonoma site, in April anyway, is for Christians who prize tradition (leg of lamb) as well as the finer things (“sea salt” and “shallot butter” are recommended as accompaniments). Deeper in the Easter supplement is a girl who looks to be African-American and a sandy-haired boy exclaiming over a table set with handmade chick dolls and mint-green Easter eggs in egg cups.
A search for “Passover,” which starts Saturday, turns up two wan, small-print menus with recipes for matzoh-ball soup.
Some observers have read “Williams-Sonoma Republicans” as nothing more than “Republican women,” but that misses the fact that Williams-Sonoma explicitly targets men, too, with barware and barbecue paraphernalia. The Votaggio brothers—manly “Top Chef” winners Michael and Bryan—have been brought to Williams-Sonoma.com by an “entertainment marketing” firm, explicitly to attract bachelors thought to be enchanted by the current trend for smoke-and-fire tough-guy cooking. Might the same bait be used to lure voting bros to the Romney table? Maybe one day soon the company can bring Romney to the site, where his platform can be turned into special content, like the videos by Joe Cross and the Voltaggio brothers.
In any case, something is working. The Williams-Sonoma factor might even be predictive. Yahoo News has turned up an astonishing correlation between number of Williams-Sonoma stores in a given state and Romney's performance there in the Republican primaries. In short, Romney has won every state that boasts at least one Williams-Sonoma store for every 1 million residents. If the correlation holds, Romney will take the Williams-Sonoma-heavy states of California, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
But what about Rick Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania? Will it go to Romney? Well, it just misses the mark. Pennsylvania has one Williams-Sonoma store for every 1,059,000 residents. Which means it's not in the bag yet.
Thinking of the cross-branding potential, I put in a call this week to the Williams-Sonoma store in Madison, Wisc. I asked the manager if she had seen Romney supporters out in force in the store on primary day, or if the store would consider creating Romney casserole dishes. She hung up on me.