Politicians don’t just work for the American people. Corporations spend millions of dollars on political action committees, lobbyists, and campaigns each election cycle to ensure legislators will pass laws that are in their favor and derail ones that aren’t. That means when Americans vote this November, many will be voting for candidates who have taken thousands of dollars from the restaurant and bar sector over the past year. Campaign finance data reveals the political leanings of America’s top fast-food corporations and their employees.
Federal law prohibits corporations and labor unions from donating directly to political candidates, so large companies typically don’t openly support individuals who are running for office. Their CEOs and employees can independently donate to candidates, however — or to company-sponsored political action committees (PACs). Corporate PACs pool money from employees and donate it to candidates (up to $5,000 per candidate, per election) or political parties (up to $10,000), or spend them on political ads. Companies can also hire lobbyists to advocate for their business to members of Congress. All these methods give them indirect ways to contribute to politicians’ campaigns and fundraising.
Perhaps surprisingly, restaurant giants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s aren’t directing their money toward presidential campaigns. Eater’s analysis of political donations associated with the top fast-food companies in America showed no major fast-food CEO or PAC has donated directly to either Joe Biden or Donald Trump in 2020. Instead, they’re pushing their money toward political organizations, congresspeople, and other PACs; these groups, in turn, push for specific political candidates, policies, and causes that benefit large corporations.
Republican candidates and conservative causes often receive the bulk of fast-food PAC dollars, compared to Democrats, Eater’s analysis shows. This is unsurprising. Republicans have historically supported tax benefits for large corporations, as well as lighter government regulation on big business. Meanwhile, in a country where fast-food workers are fighting for higher minimum wage laws and union protections, Democrats often see more support from low-wage workers due to the party’s views on labor unions, minimum wage, and health care.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has received more money from major fast-food PACs than most other politicians ($21,000 in 2020), is indicative of this trend. Viewed as a moderate Republican who is sometimes a swing vote on issues like health care mandates and tax cuts, Collins has a record of arguing against raising the minimum wage. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which helps pass policies on employment standards, wages, and foreign labor. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, who also serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry — which has jurisdiction over agricultural production and nutrition policies — has received $10,000 during the 2020 cycle from PACs serving the leading fast-food companies. Top Democrat recipients of fast-food PAC donations, like Florida representative Stephanie Murphy, are also viewed as more moderate. Murphy has received $17,500 from the nation’s leading fast-food company PACs, according to Eater’s analysis.
To get a clearer picture of how fast-food companies and their employees support political candidates, Eater looked at Federal Election Commission data and data from OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign donation spending. Eater focused on the top 10 major fast-food companies, based on U.S. sales and number of locations:
- Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell)
- Restaurant Brands International (Burger King, Popeyes, Tim Hortons)
- Dunkin’ Brands (Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins)
- JAB Holding Company (Panera, Pret a Manger, Krispy Kreme, et. al.)
No acting CEO of a major fast-food company has given to the Donald Trump or Joe Biden campaign this election cycle. This makes sense: It’s not uncommon for consumers to turn on CEOs who openly support political causes, especially controversial ones. When Goya CEO Robert Unanue praised Donald Trump as being an “incredible builder” during a roundtable event for Hispanic leaders for the announcement of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, for instance, many consumers boycotted the brand. Several American CEOs who joined President Donald Trump’s manufacturing advisory councils early in his first term, including Campbell’s Soup Company CEO Denise Morrison, ultimately stepped down from the council following pressure from consumers. More recently, multiple fast-food chains were forced to publicly declare that they weren’t supporting the Trump campaign after viral rumors of their support sparked outrage.
Company-sponsored PACs act on behalf of company employees by collecting donations and distributing them to causes or candidates; of the top 10 fast-food companies, four have PACs (McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Wendy’s, and Dunkin’ Brands). Eater’s analysis found that all of them have given more to Republicans than Democrats.
Only five of the 10 CEOs on Eater’s list openly donated to political causes — mostly via their company PACs. Just one CEO, Chris Kempczinski of McDonald’s, donated exclusively to Democrats, giving $2,500 to Joe Kennedy’s Massachusetts campaign for U.S. Senate. Most of the other donations went to Republican candidates and PACs.
For this analysis, Eater multiplied CEOs’ donations to company PACs by the percent of total contributions the PAC has given to Republicans and to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets. Todd Penegor, the CEO of Wendy’s, for instance, donated $5,760 to the Wendy’s company PAC. Seventy-nine percent of Wendy’s PAC’s total contributions has gone to Republican causes, and 21 percent has gone to Democrat causes; Eater used these figures to determine how much of Penegor’s contribution to the PAC ultimately supported Republicans and Democrats.
While they may not be donating on behalf of their employers, many fast-food workers make individual contributions to political candidates and parties, and federal law requires recipients to make efforts to collect donors’ occupation and employers. Here is where support for presidential candidates is more visible. Employees at top fast-food companies gave more than $297,000 to Republican incumbent Donald Trump, compared to $139,000 given to Democrat rival Joe Biden.
Employees’ political leanings aren’t always isolated. The political opinions of a CEO can trickle down through the company’s core values and mission, affecting the political leanings of employees drawn to the company. A company like Chick-fil-A, known for the conservative views of the family that owns it (despite its recent attempts to shed that reputation as it moves into urban centers with more liberal populations than its home in the Deep South), for instance, may attract a disproportionate amount of right-leaning workers (or repel a liberal-leaning workforce), compared to companies with a more liberal ethos, like Starbucks. So it may not come as a surprise that more than 60 percent of Chick-fil-A employee donations went to Republicans, while more than 90 percent of donations from Starbucks employees went to Democrats.
Federal Election Commission data shows that employee donors still give more to Republicans than Democrats despite donors representing all areas of the industry, including delivery drivers, managers, and executives. It’s possible that employees in higher-paying positions donate more, possibly tipping the scales, though commission data doesn’t clearly indicate the party of the donation recipient and OpenSecrets doesn’t show the staff position of donors to confirm this assumption.
With the 2020 presidential election only a couple weeks away, if campaign donation data reveals anything, it’s that the stakes are high not only for ordinary citizens, but for America’s fast-food institutions, whose leaders will be watching closely to see if the millions of dollars invested in lobbying and corporate PACs will pay off. Meanwhile, as Americans prepare to vote, they may be supporting a candidate who has received thousands of dollars from corporations — likely made possible by their own cravings for pizza, hamburgers, and coffee.
Vince Dixon is Eater’s senior data visualization reporter.
Matt Lubchansky is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Queens, New York.
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