Apple needs to exit the politics biz

I demurred, saying that I feel Apple still has a few tricks up its sleeve that can move the stock even higher.

I was rewarded on Monday when Apple announced that last quarter was the most profitable in the company’s history. The technology firm had revenue of $9.87 billion and earnings of $1.67 billion, up from the $7.9 billion the year prior. Wall Street responded predictably, boosting Apple shares over the $200 threshold, surpassing the stock’s 52-week high.

I was not in such a good mood about Apple a few weeks ago. On Oct. 5, Catherine Novelli, Apple’s vice president of “Worldwide Government Affairs,” publicly released a letter she had sent Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The letter was short and (not so) sweet. Most of the verbiage was little more than green marketing. OK. That’s corporate America these days. Substantively, here was the meat: “We strongly object to the Chamber’s recent comments opposing the EPA’s effort to limit greenhouse gases.” Two marketing thrusts later, the letter closes by saying that the Chamber’s position is so different from Apple’s that “we have decided to resign our membership effective immediately.”

Wow. Apple disputes one Chamber position and resigns. Seems like an extreme position, and overly political at that. I thought that Steve Jobs learned his lesson a few years ago. In 2004 he told Walt Mossberg, technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, that he had led Apple into being too political. Here’s the exact quote: “People have said that I shouldn’t get involved politically because probably half our customers are Republicans — maybe a little less ... [but] I do point out that there are more Democrats than Mac users, so I’m going to just stay away from all that political stuff because that was just a personal thing.”

Well, Jobs’s “personal thing” and “all that political stuff” could become my “financial thing” if he forgets what he once knew and allows the company to become overly politicized. I don’t want my public company’s officers running off customers while they pursue a political agenda that makes it harder for businesses to be profitable. In addition to reminding Apple’s leadership that it has lots of conservative and Republican customers, I also note that it is swimming in cross-currents on the issue. The Gallup Organization’s latest polling finds that skepticism regarding the seriousness of global warming has reached an all-time high.

Four in 10 Americans (41 percent) say that climate change is “generally exaggerated” by the news media.

It’s possible that Apple is simply following a political playbook by “playing to the base.” I am sure that the most fervent and devoted Mac-heads were accepting of Apple’s actions toward the U.S. Chamber. But allowing the base to influence corporate strategy will only make Apple a perennial and distant runner-up to that big, dumpy PC user Apple loves to pillory in its ads. Why let that guy win?

Apple should realize that there are enough groups out there to advocate for environmental issues. Apple board member Al Gore could handle this personally.

Apple is a business, not an advocacy organization, and there are fewer voices every day willing to speak up for the business community of which Apple is a member, like it or not. If share prices ever go down because of an excessive regulatory environment, Apple will wonder why it quit the team. I do already.

Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.