HPE's Whitman endorses Clinton; will Trump retaliate if he wins?

CEOs often engage in politics, but Whitman is more involved than most

HP Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman

In 2011, Hewlett-Packard ranked seventh in federal contracting. Barack Obama, a Democrat, was president. In 2012, HP CEO Meg Whitman publicly backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for president, and even served as a California "statewide honorary chairman" for him.

Did Whitman's backing of Romney help or hurt HP? Will her particularly brutal condemnation Tuesday of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hurt the firm, should he win the election?

If Whitman's support for Romney caused any corporate damage it is not apparent in its federal contracting. In 2011, HP's total federal contracting was pegged at $3.83 billion by Washington Technology in its annual ranking of federal contractors, putting it in seventh place.

In 2015, HP was sixth among all federal contractors, with $3.86 billion in contracts, a slight uptick from 2011, according to the publication's latest list. (Hewlett-Packard late last year since split into companies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), which Whitman runs, and HP Inc.)

On Tuesday, Whitman published a Facebook post announcing her support of Hillary Clinton, the Democrat's presidential candidate.

"To vote Republican out of party loyalty alone would be to endorse a candidacy that I believe has exploited anger, grievance, xenophobia and racial division. Donald Trump's demagoguery has undermined the fabric of our national character," wrote Whitman on Facebook. "Trump's reckless and uninformed positions on critical issues - from immigration to our economy to foreign policy - have made it abundantly clear that he lacks both the policy depth and sound judgment required as President."

Corporate leaders are often engaged in politics, usually through campaign donations and on specific issues affecting their companies. But Whitman is a little different from most CEOs. She was hired as HP's CEO in 2011 after her unsuccessful run in 2009 as the Republican nominee for governor of California. HP was hiring someone with political ambitions.

Simon Business School Professor David Primo said CEOs do have to consider the potential effects of their political involvement. But, "in Whitman's case, I'd argue that this is largely a non-issue, since she is a previous candidate for public office whose political views are well-known," he said.

"While I don't think Whitman's endorsement will affect HP one way or the other, it is a major coup for Clinton to get this endorsement," said Primo. The Simon School of Business is based at the University of Rochester.

Does Whitman's endorsement matter?

Any evidence showing it is consequential is "more muted -- just as labor endorsements by union leaders do not always translate into support for the position taken or the candidate endorsed," said David Caputo, a professor of Political Science at Pace University and president emeritus.

The Clinton campaign is attempting to attract Republican and independent voters to its candidate and the endorsement of Clinton by business leaders "known to be strongly affiliated with the Republican Party should be seen as part of their strategy to win Republican and Independent support," said Caputo.

"One endorsement will not make a significant difference, but a large number might reinforce the Clinton campaign's assertion that Donald Trump is not qualified to serve as president," said Caputo.

While it's not clear what Whitman's endorsement of Clinton might cost the firm if Trump wins the election in November, one thing is clear: Trump has proven time and again in this race that he doesn't take criticism lightly.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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