The candidates court tech heavyweights, and their social networks, too.
In 2012 venture capitalist Marc Andreessen publicly abandoned the Democratic Party, announcing that he’d back Republican Mitt Romney. “I turned 40 last year, and so I figured it was time to make the switch,” he said in an interview with CNBC. He gave $100,000 to a super-PAC supporting Romney. But on May 3, after Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, Andreessen sent a brief tweet indicating that this year he plans to throw his support behind Democrat Hillary Clinton: “#ImWithHer.”
Clinton needs public support from people like Andreessen, who co-founded the early Web browsing company Netscape and remains a hero to many in the industry, more than she needs their campaign contributions. “Andreessen was a pretty strong signal,” says Joe Trippi, a Democratic political consultant who pioneered the use of technology to reach voters as Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004. “You could see a lot of unanimity and support for Hillary.” (A spokeswoman for Andreessen’s venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, declined an interview request. Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in the firm.)
Recruiting high-profile supporters helps candidates attract donors and volunteers in those leaders’ social networks—from colleagues and employees to startup founders eager for entrÃ©e to closed events at executives’ homes. “As a fundraiser, it was really helpful to me saying, ‘X person is hosting this,’ ” says Autumn Sample Kurtz, who worked as the regional finance director in Northern California for President Barack Obama’s campaign in the 2012 election and specialized in major donor relations. “Obviously there are a lot of business relationships there. And so as interested as people are in meeting a certain candidate, I think they are oftentimes more likely to contribute funds not only to meet that person, but also kind of like, ‘I need to throw so-and-so a favor and support their fundraiser.’ ”
Clinton struggled to win backing in Silicon Valley in the 2008 campaign as newly minted startup millionaires flocked to Obama. Since then, she’s worked to cultivate support there. Clinton traveled to Facebook and Twitter headquarters in 2014 and spoke at a 2015 conference for women in technology. She’s won over Tesla Motors and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, both of whom have donated to her campaign; Sandberg was one of many to contribute the day Clinton announced her candidacy in April 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records. “I’m very supportive of Clinton,” Sandberg said at the time at a San Francisco conference hosted by Virgin Group. “I’ve said before I’d like to see her as president, and I’d like to see more women presidents all over the world.” The Clinton campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This year, Bernie Sanders has raised more than Clinton among people in the tech industry, according to Crowdpac, a startup that tracks money in politics. Many of Sanders’s donations have come from small donors. Trump’s victory in the Republican race may draw some Sanders supporters to Clinton’s side, says Donnie Fowler, a lecturer at the University of San Francisco who worked as national field director for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “While Clinton has not proven the darling of the online techie donor crowd when the choice is Bernie vs. Hillary,” he says, “things are gonna change when it’s Hillary vs. Donald.”
Trump has attracted some high-profile supporters such as Facebook board member Peter Thiel. Trump’s campaign included Thiel, a longtime Republican donor, on its delegate slate for California’s June 7 primary. Thiel, who helped found PayPal with Musk, previously supported former HP Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina’s presidential run, giving a super-PAC supporting her a $2 million donation before she dropped out of the GOP race in February.
Republicans outraised Democrats at Cisco Systems, Intel, and Oracle in 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records. Sensing an opportunity, Rand Paul opened a campaign office in San Francisco. Jeb Bush drove around in an Uber and starred in a Vine putting on a hoodie, the de facto uniform of Silicon Valley programmers.
Some say Trump’s reliance on social media to promote and amplify his candidacy might inspire the tech world to work against him. People in Silicon Valley who work at the companies Trump uses as a platform may say, “This is not the way we envisioned social media being used—to divide people,” says Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of politics at San Jose State University. “The difference in opponent has suddenly made someone who was kind of boring and predictable and laboring in 2008 now as somebody who, gosh, at least her feet are on the ground.”