Politics

Beyond the megadonors, Silicon Valley is still stingy about donating to politicians

The tech industry has minted some of the wealthiest people in the world in record time. But many of them are still reluctant to get in the arena.

Beyond the megadonors, Silicon Valley is still stingy about donating to politicians

Despite the industry's enormous wealth, Big Tech is still giving relatively small amounts to politicians, compared to other industries.

Image: Getty Images

Silicon Valley has minted some of the world's wealthiest people in record time. But compared to other industries, a new analysis by Protocol shows, a relatively small slice of that wealth is being spent on the 2020 election. While the past decade has made millionaires and billionaires of loads of tech founders and Big Tech leaders, most of them remain deeply reluctant to donate to politicians.

"My read, as a member of the tech community, is that we have significantly large percentages of our community who have the ability to give to campaigns who just aren't," former Pete Buttigieg national investment chair Swati Mylavarapu told Protocol this spring. Mylavarapu and her husband, Matt Rogers, the co-founder of Nest, committed to giving $2 million to political campaigns before July 2020. "If you look at the subset of people who are actually hosting fundraisers and making contributions, it's a surprisingly small percentage," she said.

Sure, Big Tech's political megadonors have spent lavishly on Democratic campaigns this election cycle. According to a recent count by Recode, the top 15 donors who have made their money from tech have given a whopping $120 million in federal campaign contributions over the last two years. And contributions across the industry are growing substantially compared to elections past. But look beyond the shortlist of megadonors — beyond the Karla Jurvetsons and Dustin Moskovitzes and Reid Hoffmans — and Silicon Valley's contributions to politicians, particularly the ones running for president, begin to look stingy compared to other industries.

A recent Forbes analysis of U.S. billionaire contributions to Trump and Biden found that tech billionaires are both outnumbered and outspent by billionaires from the financial sector. That's despite the fact that eight of the top 10 richest people in America made their money from tech.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, among the top 20 donors to all federal campaigns and committees this cycle, only two — Jurvetson and Moskovitz — made their money from the tech industry. (Three if you count Michael Bloomberg, which we are not.)

These figures don't include contributions to dark money groups, but are telling nonetheless. And remember that when tech founders got rich, from Facebook or Google or Microsoft or PayPal, they weren't alone: In lots of cases, a swath of early investors and employees got rich, too. But according to data from The Center for Responsive Politics on total donations to the 2020 presidential race by sector, donors from the tech industry don't even make it into the top 10.

Those numbers don't include contributions to down-ballot races and can, of course, be skewed by a single individual like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and Republican megadonor who consistently puts the casino industry on the map.

Tech companies are similarly scant when the data is sliced to show top donors by organization. The Center for Responsive Politics tracks donations both from corporate PACs and from individuals who work at those companies, which means it would include not just the megarich CEOs and founders of big tech companies, but all of their employees, too. Even so, according to the figures, the only tech company among the top 20 organizational donors this cycle was Alphabet, which clocked in at No. 14. Only two others — Microsoft and Amazon — even make it into the top 50.

Protocol also recently analyzed the biggest donors at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, and found that not only had none of the companies' CEOs made large donations to candidates this cycle, but the average size of the top donors' biggest checks was just over $183,000 — sizable, but far short of the seven-figure checks that the largest donors are writing.

"There are a large number of uber-wealthy people who just don't want to get hit," said one top Democratic fundraiser who asked to remain anonymous. "For them to have such large checks under their name would put their companies needlessly in harm's way by the Republicans. There's no point."

Silicon Valley wealth extends far beyond the big five companies, of course. The past decade has made billionaires of dozens of founders whose companies either sold or went public, but many of them are also hesitant to donate to politicians. Protocol compared Federal Election Commission records to data on the top 20 U.S. venture-backed tech exits of the last decade provided by PitchBook and found stark differences between founder-CEOs and founders who have moved on or taken on less public roles within their companies.

Case in point: While Mark Zuckerberg has focused his political giving on ballot measures and election preparedness this year, his Facebook co-founders Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Andrew McCollum have spent big supporting Biden and other Democrats. Moskovitz, in particular, has spent some $24 million up and down the ballot this cycle.

It's similar across the sector. While Twitter's Jack Dorsey contributed small amounts during the Democratic primary, his Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams, who now heads up Medium, has written a $250,000 check to the Biden Victory Fund. At Palantir, CEO Alex Karp has contributed $2,800 to Biden's campaign. His co-founder, Republican megadonor Peter Thiel, meanwhile gave $850,000 to a committee supporting Kris Kobach's Kansas senate primary race.

Two notable exceptions: Lyft President John Zimmer and CEO Logan Green together contributed $100,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, and wrote smaller checks to dozens of other campaigns.

Concerns about appearing overly partisan at a moment when the president himself claims to be running against Big Tech are definitely standing in the way of some tech execs. But beyond the impact that donating can have on their reputations, tech donors often also prefer to have more control over how their money gets spent, according to the Democratic fundraiser. That can sometimes lead them to make bigger bets on, say, political tech companies, like Alloy, a Democratic data firm that LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park funded to the tune of $35 million. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has also reportedly funded 20 political startups through an outfit called OneOne Ventures.

Raffi Krikorian, a former Uber and Twitter exec and current managing director of The Emerson Collective, a philanthropic group funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, says an equally big barrier to political donating in Silicon Valley is a lack of education. Newly wealthy techies, he says, often don't want to align themselves with one candidate or another and prefer to donate to causes that are either nonpartisan or that don't have to disclose their donors. "I've had to get on the phone with people this cycle to say […] 'You don't just have to give money to candidates. There's other places you can give your money to make a difference this cycle,'" Krikorian said. "They just didn't know this is the case."

Krikorian added: "Then you've got the Coinbases of the world, who are asshats."

While the pool of political donors in tech is still relatively small, there are clear signs it is growing. As Recode noted, the top 15 tech donors this year had given only $7 million in collective federal political contributions prior to 2016. But that election changed everything. "Trump is as anti-Silicon Valley thinking as there could ever be a politician," the Democratic fundraiser said. "There was a visceral negative response to Trump once he won."

Silicon Valley is beginning to catch up on the political money race, in other words. But it's still got a long way to go.

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