John Kasich and the politics of pizza: Why do voters care about a 'little fork'?

How a politician eats pizza can impact voter perception of the candidate – and electability.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich eats pizza at Gino's Pizzeria, Wednesday in the Queens borough of New York. How a politician eats pizza can impact voter perception of the candidate – and electability.

Ohio's Republican candidate for president is finally getting some media attention, though perhaps not for a reason he'd like – he ate a slice of New York pizza with a fork.

How a candidate chooses to eat his pizza may not seem like a vital issue in presidential elections, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich isn't the only politician to run into backlash for digging into a slice of pizza pie with a knife and fork. The public's interest in the eating habits of their presidential candidates may say something about the way they evaluate politicians. For many Americans, whether or not they see themselves being able to relate to a candidate is as important as the politicians' stance on policies.

And so, the governor of Ohio and contender for the highest post in the United States, took to national television Thursday defending his pizza-eating habits.

"Look, look, the pizza came scalding hot, OK? And so I use a little fork," Mr. Kasich told ABC's "Good Morning America." "You know what? My wife who is on spring break with my daughters said, 'I'm proud of you. You finally learned how to use a utensil properly.’ But I mean – not only did I eat the pizza, I had the hot sausage. It was fantastic."

Kasich finished the pizza off with his hands, though he missed the critical New York fold-over and prompted critical comparisons to Donald Trump, who ate pizza with a fork alongside Sarah Palin, Nick Gass wrote for Politico.

The impact of a candidate's personal life on his or her executive abilities is widely debated, so its impact generally depends more on the taste and religiosity of individual voters. Any voter would be hard-pressed, however, to honestly claim that taste in pizza determines diplomatic ability or economic policy.

Why then, is pizza so important? It is likely one of the bizarre symptoms of popular democracy on a 24-hour news cycle. Most voters eat pizza without a utensil, and many select their candidates based on who they best identify with, whether they know it or not, Doug Wead, a political historian and author of "All the President's Children," told The Christian Science Monitor in February. 

"The voter is not actually a very good expert on why they have voted the way they have, that is, they may have been influenced whether they know it or not," Mr. Wead said.

A close race can come down to a single word in a speech or even the color of a tie, Wead says. In a place like New York City, it seems pizza also factors in. The phenomenon is not limited to Republican candidates for office. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio first took office in 2014, he brought his pizza-related baggage with him, as the Monitor's Harry Bruinius reported:

The mayor’s man-of-the-people image, meanwhile, has already taken a few New York broadsides. True, after the first three winter snow storms of his term, including Monday’s, the mayor has shoveled and salted the sidewalks of his Brooklyn home himself. But his populist bona fides took a hit last month when he ate pizza with a knife and fork – prompting [then talk show host Jon] Stewart and others to mock him mercilessly.

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