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

In prior generations, maintaining an apolitical position from the public's point of view was a safe stance for retailers to take. The risk of alienating customers has been enough to keep many organizations in the U.S. retail industry from openly revealing their political affiliations, even as some executives have chosen to quietly make personal donations or otherwise indirectly endorse their politico of choice.

Despite the broad appeal a company can maintain with consumers by not publicly picking political sides, some executives and their companies have since shown their willingness to openly express their political views, and 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, most oil companies and many 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.

Company 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. In 2018, when Nike openly endorsed the protests inspired by quarterback-turned-social-activist Colin Kaepernick, for instance, many conservative consumers expressed their outrage by destroying Nike merchandise they owned. Despite such protests, shares of Nike increased in value 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 President Trump sought to impose on foreign markets that included countries where Harley-Davidson sells motorcycles. In response, the president urged the public to boycott the company and he also promised to impose hefty taxes because of its plans. That call to action did not prevent the United States Secret Service from continuing to use and order more Harley-Davidson motorcycles for President Trump's motorcade.

Companies That Embrace the Democratic Party

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 like 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 for which they support. If those companies no longer support such stances, they might risk losing segments of their desired customer base.

Companies That Embrace the Republican Party

Companies that publicly express conservative beliefs and find support among Republican voters include Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby. The former company 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 popular fast-casual restaurant in response to calls from left-leaning groups to boycott the restaurants. 

Hobby Lobby, meanwhile, 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 the crafts store chain 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—and CampaignMoney.com, which likewise tracks donations made by private individuals, industry professionals, and celebrities, the Republican and Democratic Parties have both enjoyed their share of high-profile retail executive support. 

Predictable Politics and Surprising Supporters

Some political actions by business leaders are made as a matter of compromise or limited choices. Meg Whitman, for instance, has been no stranger to politics, having pursued the governorship of California in 2010.

In 2016, Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, 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.

Retail Execs Who Backed Democrats in Past Elections

Arthur Blank

(Atlanta Falcons Owner 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 Jr.

(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; Men’s Wearhouse founder, former CEO)

  • 2016 - Pramila Jayapal

Retail Execs Who Backed Republicans 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

(former CEO of McDonald’s)

  • 2012 - Mitt Romney