When Retailers Shop the Season Doesn't End at Christmas

Unfortunately for voters, the $3.7 billion spent over the most recent election cycle did not come with a gift receipt. Despite being rung up as the most expensive midterm in US history, nearly two-thirds of Americans sat out the election -- the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years. Those who didn't turn-out were disproportionately low-income people, who are increasingly shut out of the political process. It makes sense to see growing disillusionment with politics alongside massive outside spending, since the interests of ultra-wealthy donors are unlikely to reflect the experiences of most citizens. On issues like the minimum wage, the divergence can be stark. That is one reason why low-wage retail workers are making their case for better working conditions in big-box parking lots for the third straight year of Black Friday strikes. They need a public forum on the Walmart economy, and big-box retail took the last one on the shelf.

In our recent paper, Retail Politics: How America's Big-Box Retailers Turn Their Economic Power into Political Influence, we found that the six largest big-box retailers in the US spent $30 million on campaign contributions and lobbying during the latest election cycle -- that's six times more than they spent in 2000. Walmart and Home Depot, in particular, rank among the top campaign spenders in the nation. And this spending is not like consumption spending on, say, some cheap imported merchandise, it is an investment with real returns.

Political spending of big business is as much about flooding the process with friendly faces as it is about establishing access once the election is over. The campaign and committee donations of wealthy interests first fill the playing field with candidates who share their priorities, and then elevate the issues they care about most. Over time, big-box retailers have supported Republicans over Democrats by a clear margin of 2-to1. But in the 2014 cycle these companies spent their political dollars widely, giving on both sides of the aisle -- and even donating to opposing candidates in contested races.