The American Tradition: Turkeys and PACs

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our Washington correspondent and fill-in host Todd Zwillich wrote this essay about the intersection of Thanksgiving, presidential politics, and turkey. Listen above and follow along below. 

Finally it's Thanksgiving. The political attack ads are gone; The election is over. And the guy who won, President Barack Obama, is going to continue that national tradition of pardoning a turkey at the White House today. Presidents Since Harry S. Truman have been accepting White House turkeys at Thanksgiving. The actual turkey pardoning ceremony only goes back to 1989, and President George H.W. Bush. 

Still, it's nice to know that after a bruising, sometimes ugly election season, the presidential turkey pardoning is the only thing Thanksgiving and big-money politics have in common. 


Several years ago I was covering the turkey pardoning, so I arranged to meet up with the president of the National Turkey Federation. He was getting ready, later that very day, to stand in the Rose Garden with the president and present the pardonable turkeys, just like the Federation does every year. I really wanted to not do a story on a photo op. So I asked the turkey guy: 'Say, how much money did the Turkey Federation give in political contributions last year and what do you think you got for your money?' He didn't love that question.

Turns out the answer was a lot of money. 

And so I started wondering who else on the Thanksgiving table has a hand in big money politics. If you think you're having a feast tomorrow, wait til you hear about the politicians.

This year: The National Turkey Federation took in $310,000 and spent over $145,000 on candidates for Congress. That doesn't include governors or state officials. It also doesn't include individual companies. Tyson Foods sells a lot of turkeys also. They also let politicians gobble up $153,000 in campaign contributions in this election cycle. Butterball even has a PAC, called Butterball PAC (what else?), and they had a relatively light year, spending just $26,000.

Lots of people prefer a baked ham at Thanksgiving. No pork jokes, but you should know that the National Pork Producers shoveled $357,000 into the federal political trough this cycle. Didn't I just say no pork jokes? Wonder if that ham you're carving was produced by agribusiness giant Cargill? Better tack on another almost quarter million.

Actually that's not all. Say, do you like your potato baked or mashed? Either way, the National Potato Council has some skin in the game. Their PAC raised $88,000 this cycle. Doesn't sound like much, but you're gonna want butter on that, of course. Well Dairy Farmers of America, Dairymen's PAC, International Dairy Foods Association, and others combined for no less than half a million dollars to candidates.

Are you stuffed yet? Do you think your elected officials are?

Thanksgiving just isn't the same without mom's cranberry sauce. And running for office just isn't the same if you're one of the 26 congressional candidates who shared in $55,000 in contributions from Ocean Spray Cranberries' PAC.

And do pass the dinner rolls! The American Baker's Association passed $160,000 to candidates this year. Make your own dough joke. I'm not going to help. 

Man, I am full. And I've had it up to here! Nothing like some NFL football on Thanksgiving Day to get your mind as far away from politics as possible. Wait, seriously? You mean to tell me the National Football League's Gridiron PAC kicked in over half a million dollars to political campaigns this year? And that's just a fraction of what they raised!

Turn on the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade instead, now there's a clean tradition, and what? Another $44,000 raised by Macy's PAC?

Kids, get in the car. We're driving home, right after I fill up the car. And I better not see you on that iPhone looking up Exxon Mobil, Chevron Texaco, BP, United Auto Workers, or Ford Motor Company, either.

In fact, you know what? We're not driving at all. We're gonna fly home from grandma's house. Just not on American, United, Delta, or Continental, since they combined for over a million dollars in direct contributions to candidates. And not on any airlines with unionized pilots, either. I don't want any part of that million dollars plus the Airline Pilots Association PAC gave to politicians. 

At least tomorrow we can forget about all this political influence. It's Black Friday, and the shopping deals are gonna be great! And No, I don't want to hear what political deals Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy got for their $3.5 million in campaign contributions. 

I know, I know. Look. The political season is over. Not everything has to be about politics. Go on, forget about this essay and go enjoy your meal, and your family, and the football. Just do me one last favor. Before you take that Alka Seltzer or Pepto Bismol, don't look up the political contributions of the pharmaceutical companies. You won't feel any better. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

We want to give a special thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics and their Website for providing the data for this essay. 

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Jay Cowit

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