October 22, 2020

Why the very richest Americans are refusing to take sides in the presidential race

President Trump speaks during a meeting of technology executives at Trump Tower on December 14,...

President Trump speaks during a meeting of technology executives at Trump Tower on December 14, 2016, in New York City.  | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

And why that’s probably fine with Biden and Trump, too.

The nation’s very richest people are sitting out the presidential race. Not a single one of the 10 wealthiest people in the US — almost all of them tech billionaires — have shared who they’re voting for in November.

That, in part, reflects two simultaneous dynamics that undergird Silicon Valley:

  • Public animosity toward the ultra-wealthy, particularly those leading Big Tech companies, has been rising in recent years, making an endorsement from one of these ultra-wealthy people as much of a liability as an asset for a candidate.
  • Even if candidates wanted their approval, tech billionaires are politically beleaguered these days, especially those who are running companies and must traipse across an antitrust minefield and unproven accusations of political bias. So they aren’t exactly rushing to extend themselves even more by taking sides on President Donald Trump’s reelection.

So it nets out in a convenient way for all sides: The world’s richest people aren’t offering their endorsements. And candidates aren’t asking.

These high-profile figures don’t typically endorse presidential candidates. But most of the tech giants and their leaders are consistently at odds with Trump’s White House on issues ranging from immigration to climate change.

Many tech leaders have consolidated around former Vice President Joe Biden, especially over the summer after he wrapped up the nomination. People like Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt, and Laurene Powell Jobs — billionaires, yes, but not household names — are investing their money and energy to oust Trump.

But at the tippy top of America’s billionaire rankings — the rich who are prominent outside of Silicon Valley, who measure their net worth not by the billions but by the tens of billions, the few who have celebrity cachet — there is silence. That’s true also for the single non-tech billionaire in the top 10, Warren Buffett, who is similarly declining to weigh in after pushing hard to beat Trump in 2016.

Many of these tech billionaires have gotten even more fantastically wealthy during the Trump era as their companies’ stock prices surged. But on the whole, they have positioned themselves as inclusive, progressive, and civic-minded leaders who take principled stands when the moment demands it, like when Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

It doesn’t exactly seem like cultivating the public support of these leaders has been a priority for Biden. In a sign of how political campaigns see Silicon Valley as a partial liability these days, the Biden campaign has not unveiled a list of endorsements from business and tech leaders. That is a departure from 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced a list of endorsements from people like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, and the three billionaire founders of Airbnb. (None of them have offered formal endorsements this year, though some have made donations to Biden.)

One person who signed that list in 2016 said they weren’t aware of any efforts to organize a similar list four years later. There are some less-developed efforts affiliated with the Biden campaign to privately organize tech leaders for fundraising purposes, but there’s no flashy public endorsement rollout.

Much has changed since 2016, though. The Democratic Party is locked in a debate about whether these Silicon Valley billionaires and their companies have too much power in American society, a debate that was on the margins during the 2016 campaign. The Biden campaign has been particularly critical of Facebook for not policing Trump’s posts more aggressively — so it would be quite cacophonous for it to boast about an endorsement from Sandberg in 2020, for instance.

And for some of the billionaires themselves, it likely boils down to a business decision. The world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, has recently been more willing to make donations to political candidates, and, as the owner of the Washington Post, has frequently tangled with Trump. Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s fourth-richest person and an advocate for criminal justice reform, has said that he has been “disgusted” by Trump’s rhetoric on race. But neither of them have endorsed Biden in the presidential race, which would risk exposing them to Trump’s wrath.

It could also endanger the efforts that tech leaders have taken to portray their companies as politically neutral. Trump and his allies frequently accuse Big Tech companies of having an anti-conservative bias, and the Silicon Valley giants often prove skittish about giving that largely unproven argument even the perception of credibility.

And then Elon Musk, whose net worth has skyrocketed in 2020 under Trump but who pitches himself as an environmentalist, said in an interview published on Monday that he was an undecided voter and cast doubt on Biden’s mental sharpness, which has come into question and is an aspect that Trump has recently sought to exploit.

Even those who are not public company CEOs are skittish about becoming partisan combatants. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s retired founder and the second wealthiest American, has emerged as a civic leader during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been unsparingly critical in his comments about how Trump is handling the crisis. But despite being ‘tempted” to issue an endorsement, he and his wife declined to do so because of their desire to remain steadfastly nonpartisan (they have a policy to not issue endorsements).

The co-founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, rank as the eighth and ninth richest people in the US. But they hardly make public statements of any kind these days, even though Brin has quietly made some donations to progressive groups and even protested the Trump administration’s immigration ban at San Francisco’s airport the week after Trump’s inauguration. Neither has weighed in on Trump vs. Biden, although Brin’s wife made a small donation to Biden this summer. (A Brin spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment on whether Brin shared her thinking.)

The two mega billionaires who have flirted with making their views clear have been Oracle founder Larry Ellison and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ellison has emerged this year as a rare Trump ally in Silicon Valley, hosting a fundraiser for Trump that collected $7 million for his reelection bid. But Ellison did not attend the event, and has insisted that it should only be read as his patriotic desire to root for any incumbent president, not a formal endorsement. Ballmer’s wife, Connie, gave half a million dollars to a pro-Biden super PAC earlier this year, although Ballmer himself has not.

Asked if Steve Ballmer was backing Biden, a spokesperson said he was “nonpartisan” and declined to comment on his politics.

It doesn’t take much guesswork to surmise who each of these tech titans is choosing as Election Day draws near. But not saying it out loud says something about Silicon Valley’s popularity in 2020.


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