WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- With pizza-industry alumni using their dining and delivery experience to think outside the box, pizza has a rising political profile.Two candidates in the field pursuing the Republican party's 2012 presidential nomination have long, stringy ties to the pizza industry and are just the latest pizza alumni to make their presence felt in American politics. The pizza industry brought in $36 billion in 2009, the last complete year for which complete statistics were available, and provides a nice resume item for candidates pushing for economic growth. But don't take the link too far. The industry declined 1% from 2008 to 2009 and has seen its share of struggles in the year and a half since, making relying on pizza for popularity at the polls look as dumb as calling it "'za."
The industry is also not all that it once was. The NPD Group counted 68,992 pizza shops in the U.S. in 2008 but in spring of 2010 said the number was at 65,859. Even PMQ thinks that number is off and puts the ranks closer to 64,950. Meanwhile, chains including Round Table Pizza, Sbarro and formerly pizza-centric Uno Chicago Grill all filed for bankruptcy within the past two years, with only Uno emerging. Of those, the Top 50 pizza chains own 42% of pizzerias and take in 48% of the sales. That's not exactly great news for pizza in general, as fast-food industry publication QSR ranked only Pizza Hut ( YUM) among its top 10 and added only three more -- Domino's, Papa John's ( PZZA) and Little Caesar's -- in its Top 30. When Consumer Reports asked subscribers to rate pizza chains this month, the highest scorer was Vancouver, Wash.-based Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza. The chain not only scored a lukewarm, left-in-the-delivery-guy's-car 7.8, but somehow managed to beat such rivals as CiCi's and Sbarro without cooking or delivering its pies. Pizza seemed to have a lot more power in the greasy, gastronomically questionable days of the '80s and '90s, and it comes as little surprise that much of the industry's political power stems from that success. For example, the man who sold Domino's to Bain Capital knew a little something about political influence. Domino's founder Tom Monaghan used his pizza fortune to lobby for anti-abortion causes and anti-abortion Supreme Court appointments. He also funded Catholic causes including Ave Maria University, the Catholic community of Ave Maria, Fla., and Ave Maria Mutual Funds, which feature companies whose operations are in line with Catholic teachings. Monaghan also briefly owned the Detroit Tigers before selling them to other politically active pizza entrepreneurs. Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian founded Little Caesar's in 1959 and came up with the "Pizza Pizza" idea of two pizzas for the price of one competitor's pie back in 1979. The proceeds helped the Ilitches build a sports empire that includes the Tigers and NHL's Detroit Red Wings, which have won four Stanley Cup titles since the couple bought the team in 1982 and have appeared in the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons dating back to 1990-91. Their pizza earnings have also earned them some influence in political circles, with Mike and Marian making campaign contributions to Obama, New York Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, former New York City mayor and Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani and the Major League Baseball and Wendy's/Arby's Group ( WEN) political action committees. Pizza money's a proven commodity on the political sidelines, but can it also be the tip pizza industry alumni-turned-politicans need to deliver an election win? Perhaps this year's hopefuls should ask Pizza Hut president Mike Rawlings, who was sworn in as mayor of Dallas last month. "If you can run a pizza chain, how hard can it be to run a country?" Green says. "A CEO's job is not to make pizza, its to make money. You always have to balance the budget. That's the only way you get reelected." -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.