Despite his penchant for Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish, and buckets of KFC fried chicken, Donald Trump’s love of the fast food industry has gone largely unrequited. As the Huffington Post reports, fast food companies have donated far less to the current Republican Presidential nominee’s campaign than they did to Mitt Romney four years ago.
In 2016, the food and beverage industry has given Trump’s campaign around $152,000 — a mere fraction of what it’s given his rival, Hillary Clinton: More than $1 million. By comparison, the industry gave Romney’s campaign more than $2.5 million during the 2012 election cycle.
Below, a chart illustrating the top-spending fast-food industry donors in 2016 (all information obtained via the Center for Responsive Politics):
The above donations didn’t all go to Presidential candidates; some went to candidates for the House and Senate or to other political action committees, or PACs. Also important to note is that the organizations themselves didn’t necessarily donate; rather, the money came from individuals associated with the chains (including employees and their family members).
But why do fast food restaurants even have political action committees in the first place? "The short answer: to influence elections and public policy because that affects the corporation’s bottom line," says Matt Childers, an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida. Gregory Koger, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, has an even more succinct answer: "Because everybody’s doing it."
When it comes to overall contributions, most restaurant companies (fast food or otherwise) donate almost exclusively to Republicans. That’s because their interests tend to line up with conservative causes.
Most major corporations, says Koger, currently have a PAC but fast-food companies have specific interests when it comes to politics. "One is minimum wage," says Koger, "They generally are fighting to keep the minimum wage either where it is or relatively low. Second, it turns out the Affordable Care Act is really important to these companies. Third, in some cases, there are attempts to unionize fast food restaurants."
Employment law is another big concern. Koger points to a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which found the McDonald's corporation can be held liable for the working conditions — including low wages — at any of its restaurants, even those owned by independent franchisees.
Also important to fast food chains? Nutrition. "Experts and critics say that fast food is not good for you," says Koger. "That’s why we see these fast food PACs donate to candidates for the Senate and House. The fights over mandatory nutrition reporting are conducted primarily at the local level." Fast food chains are notoriously against so-called sin taxes like the soda taxes that have been proposed in cities like Berkeley and Philadelphia.
If a company like McDonald’s can exert a bit of influence over local politicians, maybe those politicians will side with the Golden Arches the next time a tax on sugary drinks is proposed. "At the local or state level, that’s an incentive to donate to politicians," says Koger. "Particularly if there’s a movement to do something like that at the national level."
Interestingly, this year, fast food PAC money seems to be largely going toward local races, rather than Presidential candidates. Koger says that’s indicative of 2016 politics. "I think that has to do with the broader problems within the Trump campaign. It’s happening across the board: Republican-leaning donors are not sure where Trump campaign’s money is going. I would suspect that fast food PACs are probably donating more money to Republican candidates for Congress."
Shifting money toward ensuring Republicans can maintain a majority hold on Congress could be a safer bet for fast food chains, says Koger. "The polls have tightened recently, but over the summer, it looked like Trump would be beat decisively. For many corporations, giving to his campaign seemed to be a waste of money."
It is worth noting, however, that some of the CEOs and founders of the nation’s most profitable chains have thrown their support behind Presidential candidates. As Huffington Post notes, the CEO of CKE Restaurants (Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. ) gave $75,000 to the Trump cause. Papa John himself — founder John Schnatter — gave $1,000 to the Trump campaign in August.
Interestingly, the contributions of fast food CEOs don’t often line up with the contributions of fast food employees. The top recipient of funds from those who work at Papa John’s? Bernie Sanders, who received $1,031 from individual employees of the pizza chain. Trump, meanwhile, got $80.