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Can you win the Midwest without knowing about Dairy Queen?

One of the most famous political tweets in history is also one of the most inscrutable.

On Nov. 3, 2014, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) offered the following thought on the social media platform: “Windsor Heights Dairy Queen is good place for u kno what.”

People generally knew what. Dairy Queen is primarily an ice cream chain, after all, so one assumes the then-septuagenarian senator was referring to the frosty treat. Though it was November, which is not normally ice cream weather, particularly in Iowa. And then there was the odd phrasing; normally “you know what” is code for … you know what. Which is not normally associated with Dairy Queen.

Anyway, one person who did not know what is Donald Trump.

The former president was in Iowa last week as part of his extended push for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He stopped by a Dairy Queen in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and proceeded to do his thing where he promises to buy things for other customers. (He has not recently been in the habit of actually buying them.) But one order flummoxed him.

“Everybody wants a Blizzard,” he said. “What the hell is a Blizzard? Who ordered the Blizzard? … We’ll do the Blizzard thing, all right?”

For the uninitiated, this is a bit like walking into a McDonald’s and saying that you don’t know what a “Big Mac” is. Once upon a time, the signature treat at a DQ was the “Dilly Bar,” vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate. But then in the mid-1980s DQ invented the Blizzard — candy or cookies mixed into soft-serve — and established a new dominant offering.

It’s not really surprising that a billionaire from New York would be uninitiated about this particular bit of Americana. It’s slightly more surprising that Trump would be, given his unusual embrace of fast food as a politician and as president. But Dairy Queen isn’t a New York thing. The closest stores to his (former) home in Trump Tower are across the river in New Jersey. (There’s one fairly close to Mar-a-Lago, but, apparently, he doesn’t stop there much.) Ask Trump where to get a slider, though, and I bet you he says “White Castle” without missing a beat.

Dairy Queen is, instead, largely a Midwestern thing. Using data on Dairy Queen’s 4,000-plus stores across the United States, we created this heat map of locations. You can see that the swath from Chicago to northeast Ohio shines the brightest; This is the DQ heartland.

But if you look at that map, you notice something else, too: Save Illinois, the states where there are the most DQ locations are also those that tend to be purple or red. Trump is doing exactly what the members of his party purport to dislike the most: demonstrating coastal ignorance of “flyover country.”

Having gone to high school in northeast Ohio (and, therefore, being familiar with both Dilly Bars and Blizzards) (I ate a lot of Heath Blizzards when I was young), I was curious how much the presence of Dairy Queen overlapped with support for Trump. After all, the stores tend (in my experience) to be in more-rural areas, suggesting that Trump doesn’t know what a red-country restaurant is all about.

It’s tricky to figure out the politics of Dairy Queen locations in the aggregate. For one thing, determining the precinct of every Dairy Queen location is not trivial, involving matching thousands of addresses to electoral maps. It was also not exactly critical that this be calculated precisely. So I took the Zip codes of each Dairy Queen store, determined the counties in which those Zip codes were located (which is itself imprecise) and then looked at county-level presidential results. Consider this a back-of-the-napkin calculation.

Interestingly, Joe Biden received more votes cast in counties with a Dairy Queen than Trump. In counties without a Dairy Queen, Trump received more votes. But that’s in part because chain restaurants need to be near some people. Large, empty counties are not a great choice for a fast-food restaurant. Instead, you get stores like the one in Windsor Heights, Iowa, which is in a precinct that backed Biden by 30 points. It is also in a dense commercial area, across from a Walmart Supercenter.

But that’s any DQ store. If, instead, we look at the density of stores relative to population, the picture shifts. I took the number of stores in a county and compared it with the population. Then I segmented the results into five groups (quintiles, as fancy people say), ranging from the fewest stores per resident to the most. The results? Counties with the highest density of stores per resident also voted much more heavily for Trump.

That’s true in absolute terms (adding up all the votes cast in those counties and comparing them), and it’s true when just averaging the vote margin in all of those counties. As below.

Dairy Queen is a red-country restaurant. Hence the brand colors, I assume.

But this is also a good distillation of Trump’s unique position in the Republican field. If, say, Mike Bloomberg switched back to the GOP and showed up at an Iowa Dairy Queen to buy ice cream for people and then said, “What’s a Blizzard?” conservative media wouldn’t have stopped talking about it for a week. Trump would have four Truth Social posts about it before dawn the following day. But when Trump — also a Democrat-turned-Republican — does the same thing, he gets away with it.

Were Trump to subsequently post on social media that the Council Bluffs Dairy Queen is a good place for u kno what, that, too, would prompt an enormous amount of media attention.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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