Political Affiliations of Retail Leaders

Retail leaders support both the Democratic and Republican Parties

Walmart mega store ,Clarkston,Washington, USA
••• Francis Dean/Corbis News/Getty Images

The risk of alienating part of their customer base keeps most organizations and executives in the U.S. retail industry from openly revealing their political affiliations. That does not always stop them from backing their chosen candidates. Donations might be quietly made by some executives while others will indirectly endorse their politico of choice. While it is expected that anyone can have a political affiliation, the business of buying and selling of products and services is bipartisan activity.

In prior generations, maintaining an apolitical position from the public's point of view was a safe stance for retailers to take. Executives and their companies have since shown that they can be willing to openly express their political views.

Despite the broad appeal a company can maintain with consumers by not publicly picking political sides, it is becoming more obvious that both the Democratic and Republican Parties get strong support from some of the largest U.S. retailing companies in the form of financial resources and campaign endorsements. 

Politics as a Brand

Some American businesses seem to derive part of their brand identity from their political affiliations. Coca-Cola, Walmart, and most oil companies and U.S.-based airlines have traditionally been longtime GOP stalwarts. The perception is that Republicans and conservatives will adopt policies that are more favorable to big businesses. It was not uncommon for such companies to make donations to candidates they hoped would advocate for their interests. In practice, many companies make donations to both major parties in the hopes of staying in favor with politicians regardless of who wins an election.

It became harder for companies to play to the middle with the 2016 presidential election. The subsequent divisive politics that took center stage in the country led some companies to rethink or at least carefully word their reactions to political activities.

Politics and Consequences

Big businesses that openly aligned with any party found the concept of a common, middle ground disappearing as public opinion became more sharply split. For example, when athletic apparel brand Nike in 2018 openly endorsed the protests inspired by quarterback-turned-social-activist Colin Kaepernick, many conservative consumers expressed their outrage by destroying Nike merchandise they owned. Despite such protests, shares of Nike increased in value on the stock market shortly after the company's acknowledgment of Kaepernick.

Companies can also find themselves at the center of politics because of their corporate strategies. Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson drew criticism in 2018 from President Donald Trump because of the company's plans to relocate some of its production operations outside of the United States. The company said it needed to take such action because of the tariffs that Trump sought to impose on foreign markets that included countries where Harley-Davidson sells motorcycles. President Trump, in response, called upon the public to boycott the company and he also promised to impose hefty taxes on Harley-Davidson because of its plans.

That call to action did not prevent the United States Secret Service from continuing to use and order more motorcycles from Harley-Davidson to use in President Trump's motorcade.

Company Policy

Political expression is not always about the personal feelings or inclinations of the chief executive. A company might also support a political stance for a chance to drive sales among a certain demographic of customers. Contemporary American brands such as Apple, Starbucks, and Ben & Jerry’s have openly embraced the agenda of the Democratic Party. Such actions may appeal to Democrats and other left-leaning citizens who want to see support for causes they adhere to. If those companies no longer support such stances, they might risk losing segments of their desired customer base.

Companies that publicly express conservative beliefs, and find support among Republican voters, include Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby. Fast-casual restaurant Chick-fil-A made headlines when it became more widely known that its WinShape Foundation made donations to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. Conservative voters voiced their support for the company in response to calls from left-leaning groups to boycott the restaurants. Crafts store chain Hobby Lobby asserted that its owner's religious beliefs gave the company the right to refuse to pay for insurance coverage for contraception, namely birth control pills, for its employees.

This stance put Hobby Lobby in conflict with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to pay for such coverage. A legal dispute ensued that ultimately led to the United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby's right to hold such a position.

CEOs Pledge Their Allegiance

The executive leadership of some of the biggest U.S. retail organizations figuratively cast their vote in presidential elections long before the polls were open by providing financial support to candidate's campaigns.

According to NNDB.com, which calls itself “an intelligence aggregator" that tracks activities of famous individuals, the Republican and Democratic Parties both have enjoyed their share of high-profile retail executive support. CampaignMoney.com likewise tracks some of the donations made by private individuals, industry professionals, and celebrities.

Predictable Politics and Surprising Supporters

Some political actions by business leaders are made as a matter of compromise or limited choices. Meg Whitman has been no stranger to politics, having pursued the governorship of California in 2010. In 2016 she initially supported Chris Christie as the Republican nominee for president of the United States. After Christie withdrew from the race, Whitman crossed party lines to support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

There have been other noteworthy surprises in the political activism of some business leaders. Walmart previously held mandatory “informational” meetings to espouse the virtues of the Republican Party policies to its managers. That contrasted with Walmart executive Lawrence V. Jackson's reported personal support of the Barack Obama campaign. Also bucking corporate allegiances, Stephen Gates, former EVP for ConocoPhillips, seemed to have pledged his allegiance to Obama even though the oil industry and the Republican Party tend to serve as allies to each other.

Retail CEOs and Leaders Who Supported the Democratic Party in Past Elections:

Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and former co-chairman of Home Depot
2016 - Hillary Clinton

2012 - Barack Obama

Maxine Clark, founder and former CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop
2016 - Hillary Clinton

Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney
2016 - Marco Rubio, then later Hillary Clinton
2016 - Kamala Harris

Jack M. Greenberg, former CEO of McDonald’s
2016 - S Raja Krishnamoorthi

Alan J. Lacy, former CEO of Sears

2015 - Andrea Zopp

Thomas J. Meredith, former CFO of Dell
2012 - Barack Obama

Lucio Noto, former CEO of Mobil

2015 - Kathleen Rice

Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s
2016 - Hillary Clinton

Clarence Otis, CEO of Darden Restaurants

2016 - Hillary Clinton

Howard Schultz, founder and former CEO of Starbucks
2016 - Hillary Clinton

James Sinegal, former CEO of Costco
2016 - Hillary Clinton

Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprise

2016 - Chris Christie, then later Hillary Clinton

George Zimmer, CEO of Generation Tux; founder and former CEO of Men’s Wearhouse
2016 - Pramila Jayapal

Retail CEOs and Leaders Who Supported the Republican Party in Past Elections

Michael L. Ainslie, former CEO of Sotheby’s
2016 - Jeb Bush

Christopher Connor, former CEO of Sherwin-Williams
2016 - Donald Trump

Kenneth Derr, former CEO of Chevron
2016 - Chris Christie

David Farrell, former CEO of May Department Stores
2016 - John McCain

Leonard Feinstein, co-founder of Bed, Bath & Beyond
2016 - Pat Toomey

2016 - Kelly Ayotte

2016 - Pete King

George Feldenkreis, founder of Perry Ellis International
2016 - Marco Rubio

Irvine Hockaday Jr., former CEO of Hallmark
2016 - John R. Kasich

Alan J. Lacy, former CEO of Sears
2015 - Robert James Dold Jr.

John Mackey, Founder of Whole Foods
2016 - Rand Paul
2012 - Mitt Romney

James A Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s
2012 - Mitt Romney