The Political Preferences of Activist CEOs

by Joshua Hochberg

mentor: Eitan Hersh, Political Science; Funding source: Summer Scholars Student Fund


Corporate leaders are powerful political actors. They influence the political donations of their corporation’s PAC and their employees, serve on federal advisory bodies, and get individualized access to elected officials and their staff. Within the last two decades, several academic publications have revealed what many have long suspected: The CEOs of America’s largest and most valuable companies are overwhelmingly conservative. In recent years, CEOs have taken up a new form of political influence by engaging in CEO activism, the practice of speaking out on political and social issues not directly tied to their business interests. CEO activism, which is widely covered in the media, has been shown to shape public opinion as much as politicians.

Despite having this influence, little is known about which CEOs engage in activism, what issues they speak out on, and how often they speak out. To fill this information gap, I construct a dataset cataloguing the public statements of 144 CEOs of Fortune 500 and S&P 1500 companies, along with an array of personal and corporate biographic data. Leveraging publicly available metric of political ideology, I examine the relationship between a CEO’s political preferences and how often they engage in activism.

The results of my research are as follows. First, despite most CEOs holding conservative political preferences, I find that liberal CEOs are more likely to engage in activism than conservative ones and that they engage in it more often. Second, my regression analyses highlight that the characteristics associated with CEO investment in CPA have no effect on CEO activism. Third, I show that a CEO’s partisan preferences has a strong and independent effect on how often they engage in CEO activism.

These findings come at an especially important time. CEOs across the political spectrum are now engaging in activism on political and social issues ranging from policing to the environment to immigration. Conventional literature on the political preferences of CEOs suggest CEO statements on these issues would skew Republican, reflecting the political preferences of the CEOs. However, this research finds that this is not the case; rather, CEO activism skews liberal.

3 thoughts on “The Political Preferences of Activist CEOs

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    This is a really fascinating and comprehensive project. One thing I’m wondering about it if there is a way to categorize or qualify the idea of activism: is there a way to determine levels of activism or degrees of commitment to certain causes? It would be interesting to see what kinds of companies (food brands vs banks, for example) are more committed to certain causes than others.

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    This is an interesting topic and a really well done poster. It is abundantly clear and makes a ton of sense! I love the use of CEOs as political actors. Interesting that LGBTQ was the most important “social issue” that came up. I would not have necessarily expected that result.

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    This sounds like a super interesting project, congratulations! This made me wonder what the correlation between company policy as affects specific issues (for example, hiring and treatment of undocumented immigrants) as it compares to CEO’s official statements.

Leave a Reply