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A combination picture shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate. (REUTERS)
A combination picture shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate. (REUTERS)
wsj

Should small businesses take a stand on Biden vs. Trump?

Rebecca Tax isn’t shy about her politics—or making those beliefs clear at her business

At Lazy Mike’s Delicatessen, the Falls Church, Va., shop that she co-owns with brother, David Tax, Ms. Tax placed a 6-inch Biden-Harris sticker on an entrance and a second sticker inside near the menu board, despite misgivings about potentially antagonizing Republican-leaning patrons.

Someone peeled the sticker off the door days after it was placed there. Recently, somebody stole the second sticker. So, “we did finally take the plunge" and place a Biden/Harris sign out front, Ms. Tax says.

The thefts didn’t completely surprise her. The Facebook page of another restaurant she and her brother own received a torrent of pro-Trump social-media backlash immediately after this message was posted (and then quickly removed): “Vote for Civility."

For some patrons, though, her politics are a draw. Mimi Dash, a retired teacher, former union organizer and registered Democrat, says her top reason for eating at Lazy Mike’s is its commitment to social justice. At the same time, Ms. Dash says, she would never walk into any establishment that had Trump signage. “I’d stop going to my own doctor if he had a Trump sign," she says.

Passionate but polarizing?

With Election Day almost here, it shouldn’t be surprising that the polarization of the electorate is also reflected in some small businesses, with entrepreneurs who say they feel morally obligated to let the public know the candidates and issues they support. They are posting signs, raising symbolic flags and engaging with customers via social media and in person, promoting the liberal or conservative positions that ignite the owners’ passions.

While businesses often don’t believe they lose much, if any, business because of their public stance, outside experts say it is often a mistake.

“It can be very polarizing," says Laura Ries, marketing strategist at the Ries consulting firm in Atlanta. “Why cut off half of your potential customers?"

Katie Delahaye Paine, whose Durham, N.H., company, Paine Publishing, specializes in measuring the financial impact of public relations, says, “Placing a sign in front of a store is a lot riskier today than it used to be because of the polarization of society. Essentially, the business owner is making a statement about their values and the type of people they want to attract into the business."

Some very specific businesses with clear political resonance to the right or the left, like gun shops, could benefit from partisan or ideological signage, she says. But that is more the exception than the rule.

Still, you’ll never persuade entrepreneurs who wear their politics proudly that they are losing business because of it.

The 14-by-48-foot “Trump 2020" billboard outside JABS Fireworks store in Dillion, S.C., hasn’t caused any problems yet, says owner Conner Bracey.

His digital billboard, which faces the southbound lanes of I-95, rotates between paid ads and nonpaid ads—and intermittently displays a “Trump 2020" message that Mr. Bracey posts at his own expense.

“If I thought I was losing customers over it, I’d take it down. But no one has commented one way or the other," says Mr. Bracey, who says he put the Trump sign right by his store because he likes what Mr. Trump has done for the country.

Sandwiches and signage

In Scranton, Pa., where Mr. Biden grew up, Tom Owens is proud to post a “Biden for President" sign out in front of the small restaurant he owns, Hank’s Hoagies. There is also a life-size cutout of Mr. Biden that has been in the store for about 10 years since Mr. Biden occasionally stopped by for an Italian hoagie back when he was a senator, then switched to tuna sandwiches.

“We usually stay out of politics, but I think this election is too important to sit out," says Mr. Owens, who has owned the restaurant for 23 years.

Mr. Owens’s children tried to discourage him from posting the sign because they thought it could appear to be confrontational to some customers. But he did it anyway. No one has complained to him about it, he says, but he understands it might turn off some customers.

Even then, he says, he put up the sign “because I feel like this is the most important election of our time."

Just 10 miles away, in Old Forge, Pa., Trump supporter Tony Torquato isn’t shy about posting a Trump banner and yard sign outside his company, Torquato Drilling Accessories. Mr. Torquato, who is one of the few Republicans to ever be mayor of Old Forge, says he supports Mr. Trump because “he made promises and kept them." What’s more, he notes, Mr. Trump is very supportive of the fracking industry, in which Mr. Torquato works.

Mr. Torquato doesn’t think that the Trump signs help or hurt his business. “I believe in this guy, and I’m not afraid to put it out there," he says.

But if his company, which has six employees, actually depended on walk-in business, Mr. Toquato says, “I’d probably keep my political views to myself."

Similarly, across the state in Somerset, Pa., Guy Berkebile, president of Guy Chemical, posted a 4-by-8-foot “Trump Loves Energy" sign back in June—and a group of his 170 employees even built a frame for the sign. Vice President Pence visited the company this summer, toured the facility and gave a speech in the parking lot.

As for the sign, Mr. Berkebile says, “I think it’s had a net-zero effect on our business." Guy Chemical doesn’t do retail trade, but he says he can’t think of a single instance where his Republican leanings helped or hurt his business.

Mr. Berkebile says he wouldn’t personally shun doing business with a company that supported Mr. Biden, “though I might engage the business owner about why they support him."

In Falls Church, Ms. Tax recently engaged with a customer about politics—albeit without saying a word on the subject. When a man wearing a “Trump 2020" face mask recently walked into Lazy Mike’s, she strapped on her “Dump Trump" face mask and politely delivered the customer’s food.

“My intention was not to antagonize him but to let him see that someone who supports Joe Biden can be a respectful and hardworking person," she says. The customer had no visible reaction to her face mask, and the only conversation they had, after Ms. Tax asked him if she could get him anything else, was about refilling his Diet Coke—which she did.

The presidential campaign isn’t the only way she expresses her political views. Outside of Lazy Mike’s, an American flag flies with a peace sign replacing the stars. The other Falls Church restaurant she owns with her brother, Clare & Don’s Beach Shack, has rainbow gay-pride flags.

The restaurant has even hosted “Drag Bingo" nights because it has a number of gay customers. The nights also are a draw for some straight customers who like to play along, says Ms. Tax.

“We just want everyone to feel comfortable in our restaurants," she says. “Anything I can do with my singular voice to move us forward is something I’m going to do."

Mr. Horovitz is a writer in Falls Church, Va. Email reports@wsj.com.

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