Tech industry cash flows to Democrats despite 2020 scrutiny

Tech industry cash flows to Democrats despite 2020 scrutiny
© iStock, The Hill illustration

The technology industry is spending big to elect Democrats in 2020, even as the party’s presidential candidates vow to get tough on regulating Silicon Valley.

The tech industry, from its leading companies to its liberal-leaning workforce, has long been a major source for Democratic contributions. Numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics show that trend continuing even amid new scrutiny on big tech from Democratic lawmakers and candidates and as progressive groups push to bar donations from other powerful industries.

The big four technology companies — Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple — and their employees have given over $5.3 million collectively in campaign contributions in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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The totals, based on Federal Election Commission data through the third quarter of 2019, include money from the companies, their owners and employees and immediate families, as well as their PACs.

Facebook and its employees have donated $824,600 so far in the 2020 cycle, and 70 percent of that has gone to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics numbers. In 2016 and 2018, 67 percent went to Democrats.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and its
employees have donated more than $2.1 million so far this cycle, and 81 percent of that — more than $1.7 million — has gone to Democrats. They gave more than $8.2 million in 2018 and 73 percent of that went to Democrats, while in 2016, 62 percent of Alphabet’s more than $9.1 million in donations went to Democrats.

Amazon and its employees have given more than $1.7 million in the 2020 cycle, and 74 percent of that to Democrats. In both 2016 and 2018, more than two-thirds went to Democrats.

Apple and its employees have contributed only $605,308 so far in the 2020 cycle, with 96 percent for Democrats. They have given more than 70 percent of each cycle’s campaign contributions to Democrats consistently since the 2004 cycle. In 2018, 90 percent of their more than $1.8 million in donations went to the party.

Those figures come even as the once cozy relationship between Silicon Valley and Democrats has entered a rough patch.

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Democrats have pressed the tech industry on a number of fronts, including the biggest companies’ market power and competitive practices, the gender and racial makeup of the industry’s workforce, efforts to crack down on violent and extremist content and over how social media players handle political speech.

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersCoronavirus makes the campaign season treacherous for Joe Biden Biden could be picking the next president: VP choice more important than ever Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus MORE (I-Vt.), two presidential candidates, have both called for breaking up tech giants. And Warren has said she would not take money from prominent tech executives, just as other candidates, under pressure from progressives, have similarly sworn off cash from special interest groups, Wall Street and the oil and gas industry.

But many Democratic contenders have still hosted high-profile Silicon Valley fundraisers, including events co-hosted by top Facebook and Google executives for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE (D) and trips to the tech hub by Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus Lawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act Democratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men MORE (D-N.J.), The New York Times reported in June.

The Hill has reached out to Booker’s and Buttigieg’s campaigns.

Buttigieg has also called for tougher regulations on tech giants and has said he will welcome contributions from donors who want to help him defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE.

While Democrats have shunned donations from other controversial industries, tech watchers say doing that to Silicon Valley is a more complicated issue.

One reason for the strong flow of cash to Democrats is the tech industry’s own workforce, which has embraced many liberal causes — including criticism of how their companies are run.

“Technology company employees often care more about other issues than tech policy, with climate change and immigration at the forefront,” Joshua Lamel from InSight Public Affairs told The Hill. “So it makes sense that they are giving more to Democrats.”

Tech company workers have challenged their own employers on a number of fronts in recent months, including over labor practices and contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pentagon.

Chris Lewis, president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of expression, an open internet and access to communication tools, downplayed the impact of tech cash flowing to Democrats. Lewis said it is not surprising that technology employees’ giving is skewed toward the party, highlighting how many within the industry support progressive policies.

“I think it’s consistent with the assumptions that people make about the political leaning of highly educated, white-collar workers in communities like San Francisco and other towns,” he told The Hill.

“We just don’t know what the reason is that the employees are giving. It could be that they want policies that support their company from the perspective of the company. It could be that they want reform,” he said.

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Lewis pointed to “the folks that are inside companies looking for reforms ... whether it’s the folks in Google walk-outs or the debate inside Facebook over their politics.”

The location of many technology companies also plays a role in the politics of its employees, another lobbyist noted.

“While the numbers are heavily skewed towards Democrats, it’s important to keep in mind that a majority of these tech companies are headquartered in Democrat-heavy population centers where the workforce tends to be younger and more progressive,” Randall Gerard, managing director of Cogent, told The Hill.

While Democrats have taken a tougher tone on the tech industry, Republicans have also hammered away at Silicon Valley. Trump has also questioned the companies over antitrust concerns and with Republican lawmakers has accused social media platforms of censoring conservative views.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a left-leaning advocacy group, said that as major economic players, the tech industry would always look for allies in both parties, even in the face of criticism.

“Tech companies understand that they should be playing big in politics, and that means giving to those in power — and in the case of a split Congress, to both parties,” Gilbert said.

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She questioned if those contributions would dampen efforts to rein in the industry.

“Money going to members of Congress, inclusive of that which goes to Democrats, can certainly have an untoward influence on the strength of the necessary new regulations on issues from privacy to antitrust, and more,” she said. 

Lewis, though, cautioned against drawing conclusions on the donations to Democrats.

“I don’t know the motivation, but you can’t necessarily assume a perspective because of where someone works,” he said.

“There is no greater evidence of that than the eternal debates going on inside” the industry, Lewis added.