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Is Putting Politics On Display Bad For Business?

A used-car lot displays a sign in support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Manchester, N.H., in January.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
A used-car lot displays a sign in support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Manchester, N.H., in January.

Every election season, political signs sprout like dandelions from lawns across America. They also pop up at more than a few businesses. For some, expressing political preferences is a calculated move to attract customers. But it can just as easily turn clients away.

Jeff Reiter, who owns the Blue Plate Lunch Counter & Soda Fountain in Portland, Ore., proudly displays a 2008 Obama campaign sign inside his restaurant and says he has "never tried to hide" his support for the president.

A few years ago, he got a nasty message from one of his customers: "You have the greatest food but you support one of the worst presidents ever," it read.

Instead of crumpling the note and tossing it in the trash, Reiter decided to display it in his front window next to the menu.

Treading into politics might sound like a recipe for disaster, but Reiter says he doesn't think he's lost many customers over it.

"We encourage political discussions," he says. "I think we should be talking about these things, and this is a good place to talk about them."

Weighing The Risks

Businesses take a big chance by outing their politics, says Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at New York's Fordham University.

"They need to weigh the risks against the potential benefits of making such a visible expression of their preferences," he says.

But the owner of one Georgia business says response to his political missives has been mostly supportive.

At Premier Platforms Inc., which sells, rents and services various kinds of aerial platforms and forklifts, David Cooper uses his giant highway marquee to broadcast his politics.

He's no fan of President Obama, as anyone driving along Interstate 75 near Byron, Ga., could tell: "Things could be worse. Re-elect Obama — he'll prove it," one recent message read, according to Macon newspaper The Telegraph. Cooper told the newspaper he could "count on two hands the number of complaints" he's gotten; one person threatened to picket the business, but the threat never materialized.

Not all customers make their feelings known to management, however. Some, like Jeff Candiello of Somerville, Mass., just quietly take their business elsewhere.

For Candiello, politics and business don't mix, and since his local barber plastered his shop with political signs, he has gone somewhere else for haircuts.

"In my view, it's not going to change anyone's opinion; you're just going to alienate your clientele who supports the other side," he wrote on NPR's Facebook page.

An Uphill Battle For Candidates

Fordham's Panagopoulos thinks most businesses are still cautious about jumping into the political fray. As a candidate for the Massachusetts state Senate two decades ago, he got a firsthand look at how difficult it can be to enlist the open support of local businesses.

At the time, he was just 19 and running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district with an entrenched incumbent. He admits it was "an uphill battle" that he lost come Election Day.

"Even if the proprietors of some businesses wanted to support me, they acknowledged that some of their customers may not feel the same way," Panagopoulos says. "They understood that they risked losing business."

He remembers an incident involving an elderly couple who agreed to put up one of his signs, later to find it in their living room amid shards of broken glass from the front window.

"I'm sure that at some places around the country you will find examples of this type of reaction against businesses," Panagopoulos says. "It's not just losing business; it's running the risk of something like this happening."

'Should I Or Shouldn't I?'

Cindy Kam, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who has studied the effects of campaign signs on elections, agrees that showing support for a particular candidate can be a bad move for a business. But, she says, it can just as easily be a calculating — and good — one.

The business owner may be thinking, "If you're this kind of person, you really ought to come visit our store, because we have these kind of values," Kam says.

Candiello's barber got it wrong, she says, but Premier Platforms and Blue Plate might have struck the right chord with most of their customer base.

And these days, that question of "Should I or shouldn't I?" is somewhat easier for businesses to answer — because the electorate has become more polarized, she says.

"Now you have Democrats who sort into going to particular places, buying particular cars, belonging to particular organizations. The same on the Republican side. There isn't as much crossover as there used to be," Kam says.

"For an organic coffee shop, they probably already know who their audience is, so it may not be as risky for them to put up a sign as it would be for, say, a mom-and-pop grocery store."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.