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June 14, 2024
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Biden shores up Silicon Valley support despite lack of enthusiasm

SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden is shoring up his support among tech industry Democrats, some of whom are setting aside their reluctance about a second term to focus instead on preventing a second term for former President Donald Trump. 

Biden swung through the wealthy enclaves of Northern California on Friday to raise money for his re-election campaign, giving him a chance to meet face-to-face with some of the Democratic Party’s wealthiest donors and key allies in the business community. 

While the tech industry has always leaned left compared with other sectors of the economy, several vocal tech billionaires including Tesla CEO Elon Musk have shifted their politics to the right in recent years. That has left an impression that all of Silicon Valley may have moved with them into conservative territory, but the available evidence suggests otherwise: The tech sector is breaking for Democrats as clearly as ever this year. 

And although some tech executives and investors sought a few months ago to unseat Biden as the Democratic nominee, pushing for an alternative such as Rep. Dean Phillips, of Minnesota, many of the skeptics are now firmly supporting Biden as their only reasonable option, according to two tech industry figures who have raised money for Democrats and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private funding efforts.

Biden has never been the tech industry’s favorite politician, and the three-plus years of his presidency thus far have been rocky in large part because of his stances on regulation. He has pushed an aggressive antitrust agenda including against Big Tech, signed a law to potentially ban TikTok and sided with unionized autoworkers over Musk, alienating the Tesla chief and some of Musk’s friends. 

But some in tech also say that Biden has been helpful to the industry, including by bringing microchip manufacturing back to U.S. shores, and they say there’s fear that a second Trump term could bring its own disruptions, from potential tariffs to the threat of political violence

It was always likely that the tech industry overall would coalesce around Biden in the end because it’s liberal on so many other issues, such as abortion rights, said Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. 

“Political science research generally shows that people come home in the end,” he said. “People can be discontent in May and June, but when it comes to October and November, people will realize these are the only choices.” 

In a 2017 paper, Malhotra and two co-authors did a survey that found elite tech entrepreneurs have a unique mix of views compared to other political donors or rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans. They’re skeptical of government regulation, but they favor higher taxes for redistribution, and they’re predisposed toward racial tolerance and other liberal social values. 

Malhotra said that tech progressives have failed to push the Biden administration to the right on regulation, but they can still find common ground elsewhere. 

“These are typically very center-left people, and I think the message he will likely deliver is the message that will resonate with them: Political institutions are on the ballot, liberalism and liberal values are on the ballot, democracy is on the ballot,” he said. 

One of Biden’s tech backers echoed those sentiments. Vinod Khosla, a billionaire investor in companies such as DoorDash, was scheduled to host one of Biden’s San Francisco-area fundraisers Friday and said that democracy was top of mind for him. 

“My message to the general public is that I’m a huge supporter of President Biden and we have to absolutely at any cost make sure that that donkey’s rump, Trump, doesn’t get elected and destroy democracy,” Khosla said on stage at a Bloomberg News event Thursday. 

A second fundraiser Friday in Palo Alto was scheduled to feature various tech figures including Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, according to an invitation published by Puck News. 

Those funders are in addition to other big tech-industry names who’ve already given to Biden this election cycle, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Tesla investor Steve Westly and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. 

Campaign finance data indicates that the tech industry remains broadly pro-Democrat. Tech employees, political action committees and outside groups have so far given to Democratic candidates over Republicans by a margin of more than 4 to 1 this election cycle, with much of the fundraising still to come, according to the transparency organization OpenSecrets

The contrarians have sometimes been louder than the tech progressives. Musk, with 182 million followers on his social media app X, has said he won’t vote for Biden this year and in March met Trump in Florida, although Musk hasn’t said how he’ll vote. Close allies of Musk including David Sacks, a former donor to Democrat Hillary Clinton, have been unrelenting in their criticism of Biden, and Sacks attended a Trump fundraiser in March, according to Punchbowl News

But explicit support for Trump is difficult to find in the tech world. Billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who was nearly alone among major tech figures in endorsing Trump in 2016, told The Atlantic last year that he was stepping away from politics and would not be giving money to Trump or any other politician this cycle. 

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, often listed among the wealthiest people in the world, supported the presidential campaign of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and has urged Trump to pick Scott as his running mate, Puck News reported

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is getting limited support in the tech industry. Last year he won the endorsement of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and in March, Kennedy chose as his running mate Nicole Shanahan, a Bay Area attorney and the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. 

Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a left-leaning tech industry group, said that Biden may suffer from comparisons to former President Barack Obama, who was widely embraced in Silicon Valley. Obama was treated as a star when he visited Google’s headquarters as a candidate in 2007. 

“Many people in tech saw themselves in President Obama, and I think that in some ways Obama’s support in tech was almost the high water mark for any politician in tech,” Kovacevich said. 

“There are plenty of people in tech who wish that Biden took a different approach toward the tech industry, was more of a tech champion, and are disappointed that he hasn’t been, but I don’t see a lot of people embracing Trump as a result of it,” he said. 

David Ingram

David Ingram covers tech for NBC News.

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