When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton secured the endorsements of a handful of prominent chief executives in 1992, it was widely seen as a coup for a Democratic challenger for the White House to win that kind of support.
Twelve years later, White House hopeful John F. Kerry unveiled his own list of business backers yesterday, more than 200 names, including Internet pioneers Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark; more mainline executives like Charles K. Gifford, chairman of Bank of America Corp.;, and August A. Busch IV, president of Anheuser-Busch Cos.; entertainment magnates Barry Diller and Edgar Bronfman; and retail innovator Jeff Brotman, who created Costco Wholesale Corp.
But the reaction was considerably more muted this go-round.
"I can't say I'm shocked," said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, agreed. "People are certainly not surprised anymore" that some business leaders will back a Democrat, he said. "The battle lines have been drawn everywhere."
Kerry's tally reflects political changes within the corporate community. Top business executives remain overwhelmingly Republican, Kerry aides conceded yesterday, but certain corporate sectors -- high-technology, hospitality and entrepreneurial investors in California and New York -- have become increasingly Democratic in their politics. In short, the once-monolithic business world is beginning to reflect the divisions of the nation at large.
"It's no secret that a strong majority [of chief executives] are registered Republicans," said Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.). "That said, in the 1990s, high technology started as less politically inclined, but drifted to Democrats, and there's no question that now Wall Street and Silicon Valley are where you're going to get people who are Democrats."
Kerry aides said yesterday the list of corporate endorsements would be crucial to blunting Republican charges that the Democratic ticket is anti-business. Steven Rattner, a Wall Street investment banker who helped round up the endorsements, said the list dwarfs the Clinton campaign's, in both quality and quantity. It includes an industrial icon in Henry B. Schacht, the former chief of Cummins Engine Co.; Gifford, the head of one of the largest banks in the world; and Charles Phillips, president of Oracle Corp., the world's second-largest software company.
And to be sure, a handful of the names have Republican pasts. Busch gave to Democratic as well as Republican candidates in the past three elections, including to President Bush.
Owsley Brown II, chairman and chief executive of Brown-Forman Corp., makers of products from Jack Daniels whiskey to Lenox china, backed Bush in 2000. Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler Corp., actually stumped for Bush. And Fred J. Kleisner, chairman and chief executive of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, not only backed the president financially in 2000 but donated $6,000 to the Republican National Committee.
But by and large, most of Kerry's business backers have been faithful Democrats. Andreessen, Gifford and Bronfman have bankrolled Democrats, as have Marshall Field, chairman of Field Corp.; Robert J. Fisher, chairman of Gap Inc.; and Gordon Segal, chief executive of Crate & Barrel.
"I think you can arguably make the case that this is absolutely nothing new," said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, a strongly Republican organization.
The list reflects what Teixeira called the professional class-managerial class divide. Professionals, especially affluent "knowledge workers," have supported Democrats over the past four presidential elections, while managers, who are concentrated in more established corporations, vote Republican, Teixeira said.
"Knowledge industry folks see themselves as more than just managers but as people who practice a real craft," Teixeira said. "Managerial people believe in low taxes and little regulation. They have a relatively simple agenda for government: Get off my back. The agenda that knowledge industry folks have for government is far more complex."
The division is not perfect. The Bush campaign has secured the endorsements of some big-name innovators, such as Michael Dell and John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems Inc. Senior Kerry advisers said Brown-Forman and Anheuser-Busch can hardly be considered creative, young companies wedged on the East or West Coast.
But Van Dongen agreed that Teixeira's analysis does apply to business politics, with Republicans still dominating the Fortune 100 and the small-business community, while Democrats cash in on "the art community" of Hollywood and high-tech bastions around Seattle and San Francisco. Luckily for Bush, he joked, the former group is far larger than the latter.
"So fine," he said, after reading over Kerry's list of endorsements. "John Kerry's got 200 votes."