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Donors love a winner — which is why Silicon Valley is chucking money only at the top 2020 candidates

The wealthiest people in tech are gravitating toward candidates like Pete Buttigieg, new fundraising reports reveal.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg walking through a crowd of people and giving a thumbs-up.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg gestures to supporters as he departs the 2019 Blue Commonwealth Gala fundraiser June 15, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Silicon Valley is mostly ignoring the Democratic minor leaguers.

Instead, the tech industry’s wealthiest people are increasingly consolidating behind a few leading Democratic presidential candidates as the 2020 race enters a new phase of haves and have-nots.

Many high-profile Democratic donors are sitting out the race or cutting checks to multiple candidates while the field remains packed. But the donor world nationally is gravitating toward the top five candidates, according to a review of new fundraising reports released Monday. Donors love to back a winner, and that explains why it’s hard to find high-profile donor names on the fundraising rosters of lower-tier candidates (though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard did receive a surprising check from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey).

The candidates receiving support from some of the most immediately recognizable donors include South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who raised $24 million this quarter nationally despite trailing significantly in summer polling. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, two other contenders, also enjoyed strong financial support from tech’s most prominent people.

This all matters because candidates who have fallen out of favor in Silicon Valley may find it difficult to find enough financial support to even make it as far as the first presidential primaries this winter.

Many Democratic donors continue to spread their money around and support multiple Democratic aspirants at the same time. Venture capitalist Chris Sacca, who is advising other wealthy tech donors on how to get involved in politics, gave to several different Democratic presidential candidates, including Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Former DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the party’s most prolific donors and the force behind the new Hollywood streaming upstart Quibi, cut $2,800 checks to almost the entire field of contenders.

Zac Freeland/Vox

Pete Buttigieg

The candidate who appears to have the most impressive support from tech industry leaders is Buttigieg, who has become a fundraising dynamo in Silicon Valley and has rapidly built an enviable Rolodex. He has earned support from people including Tony Xu, the CEO of Doordash; David Marcus, the head of Facebook’s embattled Libra crypto project; Ron Conway, the San Francisco powerbroker in the tech-political world; Wendy Schmidt, the wife of Google billionaire Eric Schmidt; and Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix.

In fact, Hastings is hosting a fundraiser for Buttigieg next week in Menlo Park, according to an invitation seen by Recode. In addition to that fundraiser and one other, Buttigieg will be in San Francisco for “a conversation on equity, tech and community with Bay Area changemakers,” according to a second event invitation.

That’s a reminder that the Silicon Valley fundraising rush shows no sign of abating — despite all the tough talk from liberals who criticize the excesses of the tech industry. Harris is scheduled to raise money in the Bay Area, in Sonoma, on Friday, according to another invite seen by Recode. Beto O’Rourke — who has struggled mightily to raise big money despite a hot campaign start — is also scheduled to be in town on August 5 for his own fundraiser in Marin County, per a separate invite.

Joe Biden, who raised slightly less than Buttigieg, with $22 million, is also expected to return to Silicon Valley for another fundraiser this quarter. But despite his ties to establishment Democratic donors, he himself has struggled with collecting high-tech money, and his fundraising roster lacks some of the flashy names found on rivals’ reports.

Cory Booker and Kamala Harris

Cory Booker, who has some of the deepest relationships in Silicon Valley due to his time at Stanford in the early 1990s, continues to enjoy the financial fruits of those connections. Backers include Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga; Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of Airbnb; and Sam Altman, the former head of Y Combinator. His finance reports are littered with the names of prominent venture capital firms, ties that have caused some Democratic activists to accuse him of being too cozy with the tech industry he would have to regulate as president. Booker raised just $4.5 million overall.

A super PAC backing Booker that was expected to draw major Silicon Valley support seems to have so far fallen short of that. The group told Recode in February that it had collected $4 million in national “commitments,” but so far it has barely collected over $1 million in actual receipts, the group now says.

Like Booker, Harris has decades-long relationships with some major Silicon Valley donors thanks to her years as a statewide elected official in California. Backers include Mitch Kapor, one of the most prominent executives of the first wave of Silicon Valley innovation; and Reid Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn who is particularly close with Booker.

Elizabeth Warren

Perhaps the most surprising support comes from donors who are backing Elizabeth Warren, who has staked a big part of her campaign on a pledge to break up Big Tech and a refusal to attend high-dollar fundraisers during the primary. Warren raised $19 million in total and attracted backing from some prominent people in tech, including controversial venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya and Spotify’s chief financial officer Barry McCarthy.

Despite her rhetoric, Warren had the second-most support among Democratic candidates from employees of Google, its parent company Alphabet, Facebook, Apple, or Amazon, according to a review of FEC data by the Mercury News. Only Buttigieg had more.

Count investor Peter Thiel among the prominent Silicon Valley figures who are impressed by Warren. Thiel — one of the highest-profile allies of Trump in Silicon Valley — said on Monday during a Fox News interview that Warren is the one in a field of two dozen candidates who scares him the most.

“She’s the one that is actually talking about the economy, which is the thing that I think matters by far the most,” Thiel said. “Elizabeth Warren is the dangerous one.”

The following morning, Warren bragged about that anti-endorsement with a single word: “Good.”

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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