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Citizens United and the Myth of a Conservative Corporate America

In my previous post, I looked at the ideology of Google’s employees and board of directors. I have since extended the analysis to board members from twenty major U.S. corporations, including the top ten corporations on the Fortune 500 list. The ideological measures include information from all contributions to state and federal candidates as well as contributions to party and ballot committees. Nearly all members of major corporate boards have made political donations in some form of another. Overall, I was able to estimate positions for about 90 percent of board members from their contributions to candidates or party committees between 1992 and 2008.

The graph below displays the ideological positions of members grouped by corporation. Each row represents a corporation and the points along the line are the locations of its board members. The point size represents the log-scaled total amount given. In addition to the board member positions, I included the median position for each corporate board (black triangles).

These results challenge conventional beliefs about the political leanings of corporate leaders. Republicans have long been seen as the party of big business. To whatever extent this label should apply, it probably owes more to the party’s policies than the composition of its support base. Although board members from some sectors exhibit conservative allegiances—notably the oil, gas, and coal industries—most corporate boards are either dispersed across the ideological spectrum, or seem to have aligned with the left, as is the case of many of the growth stories of the new economy. To provide some context, an ideal point at zero places a contributor directly at the political center, almost exactly at the midpoint between the mean Republican candidate and the mean Democratic candidate. The median ideal point is 0.12 for board members from the top ten corporations on the Forbes 500 list, and is -0.03 for a not quite random sample of 409 board members from other major corporations.

There has been much discussion about how the Supreme Courts’ recent ruling in Citizens United v. FEC will change how corporations involve themselves in elections. The estimates of corporate board members might provide insight on the matter. That being said, I have two preliminary predictions:

1) Corporate boards dominated by liberals/conservatives will be far more likely to become involved in partisan elections.

Boards composed exclusively of liberals/conservatives should have little difficulty agreeing on which side to support. Whatever disagreement does arise will center on whether allocating the funds is worth it. On the other hand, deciding which candidate to support could be a much more contentious issue for boards with both liberal and conservative members. Even if a clear majority agrees to support the Democratic/Republican candidate, forcing a vote would risk upsetting or alienating the conservative/liberal board members. It just does not make sense for a board to engage in partisan conflict when they could easily compromise on not spending the money on either candidate, or better yet, spending it on the type of non-partisan issue ads that are already common. Simply put, bi-partisan boards will rarely take part in partisan politics.

2) Republicans will not be the clear beneficiaries of Citizens United.

Although Citizens United has routinely been interpreted as a favorable development for Republicans, the ideological positions of board members suggest this assessment is premature and might prove incorrect. Although the survey of corporate boards is incomplete, liberals appear to control as many boards as conservatives do.

Insofar as my first prediction is correct, the preponderance of bi-partisan boards means that the corporate money flowing into elections will be closer to a trickle than a flood. If not, then perhaps it will be a relief that the ideological distribution of the people who control large corporations looks quite similar to the population at large.

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  1. Monica Youn
    February 1, 2011 at 10:52 am

    An underlying false assumption here seems to be that corporate boards direct or control corporate political spending. In fact, there is no requirement that corporate political spending even be disclosed to the board of directors, nor to shareholders — that such spending is transparent was one of the false assumptions of Citizens United.

  2. David Kimball
    February 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Does the estimation take into consideration the ideal point of the politician receiving a donation? For example, I would guess that a board member who gives $2K to Jim DeMint is probably more conservative than one who gives $2K to Olympia Snowe. Did any board members in the sample make a donation to Bernie Sanders?

  3. Erin Kennedy
    May 8, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    There is significant evidence that, though major corporations’ boards may not be heavily biased towards Republicans, the interest groups contributing the most to political ads in the 2010 midterms certainly were, and that this advantage that kept Republicans competitive with incumbent Democrats. See Michael M. Franz’s paper “The Citizens United Election? Or Same As It Ever Was?” published in The Forum.

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