Chick-fil-A gave millions to anti-gay groups, and its president's outspoken opposition to gay marriage led to boycotts and bad publicity.
Bruce Freed of the Center for Political Accountability recalled a case in which members of the pharmaceutical industry gave money to an outside political group that helped elect candidates who opposed contraceptive drugs that some of them made.
Freed, whose group tries to persuade corporations to publicly disclose all of their political gifts, does not believe new data on the ineffectiveness of corporate political giving is definitive. But he said it amounts to a very loud warning shot. "Companies need to think three, four and five times what risks political spending poses and what they get for it," he said.
Aggarwal, Wang and Meschke applied mathematical formulas to 1,381 companies, comparing business performance with corporate political contributions of so-called "soft money" from general funds from 1991 to 2004.
These donations went to political parties and outside political spending groups called 527s. Federal law forbids corporations from contributing general funds directly to candidates.
Not only did companies with no political donations collectively outperform those that gave. Companies that made the most political donations performed, on average, worst.
There were notable exceptions. In Minnesota more companies that made political contributions showed increases than reductions in shareholder value, Aggarwal, Wang and Meschke found. Target was among them; 3M was not, the researchers said.
Minnesota's biggest loser, according to the study, was Northwest Airlines, whose soft-money donations averaged nearly $314,000 per year from 1991 to 2004, while the company's risk-adjusted return slumped 30.3 percent.
The overall national trend showed that shareholder value in companies that gave politically was down, not up.
Wang pointed out that soft-money donations were capped, then banned by campaign finance reform during the period she studied.
She and Aggarwal have yet to gather enough information to say whether the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited, often secret corporate contributions to political action committees and other outside groups, made a difference.
"Suppose a company went from $100,000 a year to $10 million a year," Aggarwal said. "That's way outside of what we observed."
At the same time, neither Aggarwal nor Wang has seen anything in the record spending of the 2012 election cycle that argues against what they concluded from the earlier numbers. In the 2012 cycle, businesses donated nearly $2.7 billion to candidates (legally through company PACs and individual employees), other PACs and outside spending groups, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.
Meanwhile, activist shareholders have begun to seize on recent reports like the one produced by the Minnesota professors to leverage corporate boards to change policies.
"I'd like to hear from corporations a robust defense of how their political spending is enhancing their particular companies' value in the long term," said Shelley Alpern of Clean Yield Asset Management, which is leading the attempt to get 3M to change its policy. "The burden of proof should be on them."