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Can Joe Biden pull off a Barack Obama with Silicon Valley’s wealthiest donors?

Joe Biden’s challenge in Silicon Valley this weekend is to get young donors to like him.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Biden, 76, needs to work on his appeal to younger voters.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Joe Biden may be a favorite of the country’s wealthiest donors. But in Silicon Valley, he has serious work to do.

When the presidential candidate touches down in San Francisco on Friday for a trio of local fundraisers after Thursday’s bruising debate, he faces another hurdle: overcoming the perception that he lacks the the high-octane support of leaders in the tech industry — and that he is coasting on legacy relationships.

That’s because Biden’s fundraising roster in Silicon Valley is not very Silicon Valley. It skews older and does not seem to capture much of the new wealth and influence created by today’s hot tech companies. While other candidates like Cory Booker and especially Pete Buttigieg have found success raising money from this newer generation of cutting-edge startup leaders, the former vice president is somewhat held back by his lack of younger, tech-savvy money, both neutral and Biden-backing fundraisers say.

In fact, many of Biden’s leading bundlers here are not even people from the tech industry; rather, they’re Obama loyalists who happen to call the Bay Area home. The list is heavy on former ambassadors, light on current tech CEOs. And one of Biden’s most vocal fundraisers in Silicon Valley has actually withdrawn his support for the candidate, Recode has learned.

“Biden has old people and old Obama supporters but no young people and a very, very, very small number of tech people — and certainly not in-the-prime-of-their-career in the tech group,” said one unaligned Bay Area fundraiser. “That’s all Mayor Pete.”

Nevertheless, Biden is expected to clear the $1 million target he is trying to raise from his three high-dollar events this weekend, according to one person familiar with the figures.

Biden aides declined to comment.

Fundraising struggles with younger tech donors

Biden fundraisers say they are acutely aware that they are starting in the hole with the who’s who of younger tech entrepreneurs. And so they decided to offer a limited number of tickets that are cheaper than the standard $2,800-a-person cost to attend Friday’s events as part of a conscious effort to broaden his appeal.

Michelle Kraus, an Obama fundraiser who is now bundling for Biden this cycle, acknowledged that Biden has strong, decades-long relationships with “old tech” but that he is still “developing it with new tech.”

“There is the old guard — and that includes all our venture friends on Sand Hill Road and many of the people who are in their 50s and their 60s and above who led some of the fundamental companies,” she said. “And then the world spins again.”

Biden also has spent relatively little time here in recent years, especially compared to his Democratic rivals — such as Kamala Harris, an elected official here for decades. Biden, the last major 2020 candidate to announce he was running, is making his first venture to the Silicon Valley fundraising circuit at a time when others have made as many as a half-dozen drop-ins even just in 2019. He waited two months after announcing his bid until he came to the Bay Area, rather than visiting on one of his first fundraising swings that took him to places like Los Angeles.

And Biden’s fundraising operation in Silicon Valley still lacks clear leadership. Unusually, all three fundraising events in the Valley have nearly identical host committees, according to invitations reviewed by Recode, rather than featuring separate teams for individual events. Biden appears to have deeper fundraising connections in Southern California than Northern, with a thinner fundraising roster listed on the invitations for his Bay Area swing.

And one of those big supporters in Silicon Valley, San Francisco attorney Tom McInerney — who is listed on all three final versions of the invitations distributed to donors this week — told Recode on Thursday that he had actually withdrawn his support for Biden and was “waiting to see what happens over the next few months in terms of debates and his position.” That suggests Biden’s Silicon Valley fundraisers are still getting organized.

One person familiar with the events told Recode that Biden fundraisers did not want to “chase” marquee names from the tech industry and instead intentionally wanted to keep the host list to longtime Biden friends, casting Biden’s support with the new in-crowd as more under the radar. This, though, would also be unusual because names on campaign invitations are typically meant to be a show of force.

Biden’s apparent fundraising challenges with the tech crowd are a bit ironic, given that he is broadly pursuing moderate policies, including on tech. Biden has yet to formally lay out his tech policy, but he is being advised to do one at some point in a speech, a person with knowledge of the matter said. Considering he hasn’t given any indication that he’ll preach the fire and brimstone of breaking up Big Tech, as pushed by Elizabeth Warren, or will call to raise estate taxes on billionaires to as high as 77 percent, as pushed by Bernie Sanders, Biden would seemingly have a more natural appeal to the tech set.

That’s not to say that Biden hasn’t observed how the Democratic Party has changed since he was in the White House, which had a famously close relationship with Silicon Valley. The party’s relationship with the tech industry has soured significantly over the last two years. Biden said in May that the country should “take a really hard look” at breaking up Facebook. And just this month, he took an unprovoked shot at Amazon, criticizing the zilch it pays in corporate taxes and earning a rebuke from the tech giant: “Assume VP Biden’s complaint is w/ the tax code, not Amazon.”

Any challenges Biden is facing in Silicon Valley should be a further surprise given that he, perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate, has embraced big donors.

“Fundraising has become demonized. Bundling has become demonized. But if I found another way to run a campaign, I would do it, and I would do it in a New York minute,” Kraus said. Biden, though, doesn’t demonize these old methods. “There’s something very compelling with working with someone rational.”

Silicon Valley does not feel about Joe Biden how it felt about Barack Obama

Many of the fundraisers toasting Biden this weekend come from the Obama network, as you’d expect. The invitations feature former Obama ambassadors, like Belgium envoy Denise Bauer and Spain envoy James Costos, and other appointees, like Katie Stanton Jacobs, a former Obama aide who is holding a large Saturday morning fundraiser in her yard in Los Altos, and Dilawar Syed, who served on a White House commission. (Stanton and Syed are among the few Biden co-hosts who work in tech.)

Syed said he and other Obama appointees were not repaying any “debt” to Biden, but that they merely had some natural affinity for his No. 2.

“It’s not because we served and because we feel some sort of obligation to help,” he said. “It is about the worldview and it is about the Obama legacy.”

But Silicon Valley is making clear that it doesn’t love Joe Biden the way it loved Barack Obama.

That was evident even during Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, when multiple Obama veterans note it was much more difficult to sell tickets for Silicon Valley fundraisers where Biden was the sole headliner.

Much of the Obama fundraising network — like the entire big-money world — has splintered. Some major Obama fundraisers, like billionaire Doug Goldman, are backing Harris. Others, like veteran bundler Eileen Donahoe, are hosting events for Cory Booker. And several Obama donors see similarities between the former president and Buttigieg and are raising for Buttigieg.

The ultimate loyalty is to Obama, though. And Silicon Valley donors say they draw some distinctions between the two, particularly that Biden lacks the cool factor that Obama channeled.

“I’m not getting a bunch of emails from people saying, ‘Hey, you going? You giving?’” said a second unaligned former Obama fundraiser in the Bay Area. “It’s not like when Barack Obama showed up in 2007 and everyone was lighting up everyone’s emails and saying, ‘Hey, you got to see this guy.’”

Or he put it this way: “I doubt seriously that there will be any Y Combinator participants at a Biden event. But there were Y Combinators showing up at Obama events.”

To be sure, none of this is likely to seriously stall Biden, who is at the top of national polls and has raised at least $20 million this quarter. If he’s the nominee, Silicon Valley donors will be there for him.

“Are a lot of people here excited to back IBM? That’s how I view it,” said one of the unaligned fundraisers. “IBM might be a great company, a great market cap company. But I don’t think of IBM on a daily basis as somewhere I’d want to work and to back out here. And I would say the same thing for Biden.”

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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