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Elizabeth Warren’s ban on tech money seems more symbolic than anything else

Fundraising bans are easy to announce, but they’re open to interpretation.

Elizabeth Warren supporters hold signs reading “The Best President Money Can’t Buy.”
Elizabeth Warren has, more than any other candidate, strived for purity when it comes to campaign fundraising.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren made a profound statement this fall when she equated Big Tech with Big Oil and promised to reject money from both. The policy reflected a paradigm shift in Democratic politics.

“I’m not going to take any contributions over $200 from executives at big tech companies,” she said in October, a policy that also applied retroactively. Silicon Valley leaders who had donated to Warren’s campaign naturally began to wonder whether a refund check was en route. But it turns out the policy may be more symbolic than it initially appeared.

A Warren aide told Recode last week that the campaign had “refunded contributions that violate the pledges our campaign has taken.” The aide declined to answer questions about whether it had returned contributions from any big tech executives specifically.

Warren’s team has previously specified that big tech executives include publicly listed leadership teams at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet and/or Google, Uber, and Lyft. Recode spoke with sources at these companies, however, and has been unable to find any Warren donors in Big Tech who say they have received a returned contribution.

The issue is how senior an employee needs to be for the Warren campaign to consider them an executive. If that bar is high, it raises the likelihood that Warren is actually turning away fairly little money, even as the policy allows her to claim some moral high ground.

It’s unlikely that Warren would announce a closely watched donor policy and then intentionally flout it; a fundraising report due by this Friday will spell out all the campaign’s refunded donations. The early faring of Warren’s fundraising pledge nevertheless shows just how hard these total bans can be to enforce and how they can have a far more muddled impact than their anti-Silicon Valley rhetoric suggests.

For instance, two Warren donors from big tech companies say they clearly consider themselves “executives” — they’re both at least at the vice-president level on their org charts — and told Recode that Warren has not returned their donations. Each gave more than $200.

“I would be disappointed if any candidate wouldn’t take my personal donations just because of where I work,” one of these donors said. “The two things are in no way related.”

While these two Silicon Valley veterans may consider themselves executives — in Recode’s estimation, they would meet the standard definition of what people consider an executive — the employees do not meet Warren’s threshold. That’s one big way in which the policy is more complicated than the press release.

When Warren announced in October that she would no longer accept money from big tech, banking, hedge fund, and private equity executives, her campaign sent word that they planned to cross-check the leadership team for each company with what the companies post on their own websites. It didn’t supply other information about exactly which websites.

And so a gray area developed. Surely Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could not give to Warren’s campaign (nor would he want to), but what about the dozens of people who aren’t listed on Facebook’s “leadership” website but clearly have wide power at a big tech company?

Again, the Warren campaign said the policy applied retroactively. We don’t know which big tech executives have tried to make contributions but have been rebuffed. We can, however, learn more about the policy by seeing which existing donors have been refunded. And it’s not clear that any big tech executives ended up qualifying for a refund.

Recode spoke to several senior employees who donated to the Warren campaign and also work at the seven companies that Warren’s team identified as Big Tech. (Once again, those are Facebook, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Uber, and Lyft.) None of those employees said they had received a refund from the Warren campaign. Those employees include people at the “senior director,” “senior counsel,” and “partner” levels, along with the two “vice presidents.”

“I actually don’t want it back,” said one vice president. “It’d be weird to get it back.”

Candidates’ ties to big donors have been a flashpoint throughout the Democratic primary. They have sought to one-up one another with fundraising stats and displays of transparency, each striving to show that the wealthy have minimal — or at least disclosed — influence in their campaign. Perhaps no candidate has gone as far as Warren in striving for purity, whose signs boldly read, “The Best President Money Can’t Buy.”

Fundraising bans have been a key way for candidates to distinguish themselves. Most candidates have sworn off super PACs and pledged not to take money from corporate PACs, registered lobbyists, or fossil fuel executives. Bernie Sanders even returned money from a contributor who was later discovered to be a billionaire, the sole Sanders donor with that distinction.

Of all the Democratic candidates, only Warren has explicitly made rejecting Big Tech money part of the progressive litmus test. That’s probably because the Democratic Party is divided over just how toxic these donors truly are. For instance, candidates like Pete Buttigieg have aggressively courted billionaire tech executives — and have also offered a less intimidating message about regulating Silicon Valley.

Other candidates’ bans have already proven to be up to interpretation. Former Vice President Joe Biden promised not to raise money from fossil fuel executives, but then he attended a private finance event hosted by the founder of a natural gas company. His team said it did not violate the fossil fuel pledge because the host did not currently work at the company.

Warren’s ban on Big Tech donations inevitably raises more questions than it answers. For instance, why not ban executives from tech companies that are bigger than Uber and Lyft, like Oracle or Salesforce? Should wealthy venture capitalists who back tech companies and sit on their boards be verboten, too?

These shouldn’t be hypothetical questions. These donors exist. That’s because the irony of all of this is that, despite her bans, Silicon Valley’s elite actually quite likes Warren.

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