Donald Trump is accelerating this shift, as even one of the big conservative tech investors, Marc Andreessen, pledged “#ImWithHer” (Hillary Clinton) on Twitter the night Trump become the presumptive Republican nominee earlier this month.
Without historical data, it might be tempting to blame this on the 2016 election madness. It doesn’t help Republicans’ reputation in Silicon Valley when Trump, their party’s rising star, is going directly after tech CEOs, such as when he attacked Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who is also the owner of The Washington Post) for having a “a huge antitrust problem” (excuse me, “yuuge” problem).
But the backlash against Trump is just the surface of an underlying trend. Over the last three decades, the super-wealthy have slowly shifted to donating more to Democrats than Republicans, as measured by trends in donations from the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. Democrats have been the overwhelming winners as tech slowly takes over the Forbes list.
“Changes in [the Forbes 400] partisanship could well reflect changes from a manufacturing and extraction economy to a technology and information economy—Silicon Valley and Hollywood are generous to Democrats,” wrote Stanford professor Adam Bonica in a recent paper analyzing the political giving of the Forbes 400 since the Reagan administration [PDF]. Between 1982 to 2012, the GOP’s share of donations from the wealthiest Americans sank noticeably from 68 percent to 59. It’s not that establishment American donors are suddenly developing a taste for Democratic values, but that shifts in the economy are drawing more from the liberal bastion of Silicon Valley.
This brand new 2016 presidential campaign data is sourced from Crowdpac, a political startup, which provided me with an exclusive data set of public contributions. While the underlying data on contributions is all public on the Federal Election Commission’s website, the secret statistical sauce is how Bonica* was able to pick out just 400 billionaires, who have similar names to many (many) smaller donors. This kind of needle-in-a-haystack name matching is a herculean data gathering challenge, given the number of false duplicates. While the data does not reveal secretive super PAC giving, only publicly disclosed contributions to campaigns and party organizations, it is a fascinating look at the shifting public views of the nation’s elite.
In fairness, the stereotype of anti-tax billionaire Republicans is not entirely irrational or completely outdated. While there are roughly equal numbers of billionaires that contribute more to liberal causes than conservative ones, the sheer size of the conservative-political war chest is extraordinarily lopsided: 82 percent of all donations from the Forbes 400 come from conservative-leaning billionaires ($46 million vs. $10 million).
The pattern of very large GOP donors holds up for the tech industry: One of the only conservative-leaning donors, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, gave an astounding $4 million to a super PAC supporting the former Republican establishment favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).
A cynical explanation for Democratic-giving is that the nation’s elite want to hedge their bets and contribute to any potential winner. It’s true, many in Silicon Valley give to both parties. Google’s Eric Schmidt donated to both Democrats and Republicans, but, in the end, he revealed his loyalties by working personally on President Obama’s election campaign.
While tech is often stereotyped as a libertarian oasis, no household Silicon Valley names publicly donated to the small government torchbearers, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. (In past years, early Facebook investor Peter Thiel gave handsomely to libertarian champions like the former congressman Ron Paul, but he is a conspicuous exception. Thiel now backs Trump.)
My research into the tech elite’s unique political ideology suggests a more likely explanation: The nation’s new industrial titans are both pro-government and pro-capitalism. Apple, Google, Tesla and most Internet giants are fueled by government projects: The Internet began in a defense department lab, public universities educate a skilled workforce and environmental policies benefit high-tech green industries.
The CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, has publicly stated that he’s a fan of Obamacare, since it helps his entrepreneurial drivers keep their health insurance as they transition between jobs.
In other words, Silicon Valley believes that the Democratic Party is good for emerging industries. I’ve argued that the modern emerging workforce of tech, urbanized professionals, and “gig economy” laborers all represent an entirely new political demographic pushing Democratic politicians to focus more on education, research and entrepreneurship, and less on regulations and the priorities of labor unions.
Democrats’ politics seem to now align with a broad new base of green businesses, schools, college graduates and self-employed workers.
As much as Republicans, the Democrats are now also the party of billionaires.
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*Methods note: Data comes from the Federal Election Commission, current to Dec. 31, 2015, filtered by individuals on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. Partisanship of individual donors is measured by Bonica as aggregate political giving to organizations and candidates with an identifiable liberal or conservative ideology. Bonica is a co-founder of Crowdpac.