As Chick-Fil-A finds itself now front and center in the latest front of the 2012 political culture war, the popular “original chicken sandwich” franchise is glad to let you know that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Much of that has to do with the political equation.
Not standing down from corporate statements on the gay marriage debate, Chick-Fil-A executives figure they are making a fairly savvy political gamble. While President and COO Dan Cathy’s remarks are being maligned for the timing and detachment from the national conversation, it’s much more complicated than that. Franchise owners in various locations might not be happy, but the larger corporation – clocking an annual $4 billion in sales – is more than happy to invite support from an emboldened Bible Belt coalition of conservative groups.
The key question: how much will the controversy affect the fast food chain’s sales? The answer is significant as a gauge of the political war brewing over the gay marriage debate, but it may also unleash other uncomfortable aspects of the flap. The silence from more prominent African American civil rights organizations is somewhat telling as the chain’s relationship with the Black community in many ways has a direct impact on the conversation.
At some point, expect the conversation to focus in on how many African Americans are employed by Chick-Fil-A. In managing the messaging crisis, franchise executives will reach for racial straws in an attempt to show tolerance. A fresh new controversy could emerge as Chick-Fil-A supporters will charge “liberals” with “destroying minority jobs” pointing to the vast numbers of young African Americans who are employed by the food chain. There will also be added commentary on the level of support from Black consumers. While that may seem unexpected and irrelevant, the company and many religious conservatives may attempt to use chicken as a tool to cause friction within key elements of the Democratic base: Blacks and the LGBT community.
It may seem comical, but the entrance of very visible culture war protagonists and one-time Republican presidential candidates such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggest another play to exploit long-time tensions between the two competing bases. In many ways, it could work more effectively as a distraction tool than as an outreach or vote-grabbing mechanism. While the African American community should be focused on stubborn unemployment and the impact of voter suppression games in key Presidential election states, some might get sidetracked by a war over those deliciously thick chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. Surveys examining racial, regional and partisan perceptions of the controversy would offer some critical insight.
Chick-Fil-A corporate may not be sweating it all that much although its brand ID has clearly taken a big hit. During the first half of 2012, YouGov’s brand index rated Chick-Fil-A at a 47 score – a 16 point dip from the 65 score it enjoyed before controversy erupted. But, most of its chains are concentrated in Southern states dominated by a strong Christian conservative presence, despite a brand index rating of 44 in that region compared to 41 in the Northeast, according to YouGov (that speaks to a New South that is much more ideologically diverse than normally thought). Interestingly enough, the index shows a rating of 70 in the Midwest.
This is not at all surprising when looking back on gay marriage polling following President Obama’s announcement of his support for it. Defying conventional wisdom, 40% of respondents in a May 2012 YouGov poll said they strongly opposed gay marriage compared to 28% in the Northeast and only 36% in the South. How will these numbers impact the Presidential race and, possibly, down ballot House and Senate races as politicians are reluctantly drawn into the fray?