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As we take a breather between the Democratic National Convention (this week) and the Republican National Convention (next week), I thought it would be a good time to look into big business and the candidates, which executives and companies were supporting and donating to Trump, which to Biden and why.
(Newsflash: Only 72 days to the election!)
First, when it comes to money, “Trump is outraising Biden,” says Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks and analyzes money in politics. “Primarily his lead is in getting money from small donors. [But] Biden is outraising Trump in money from the financial sector,” and collecting a great deal of money from other businesses as well.
Which is unusual, (like everything else in this election) because generally speaking CEOs and their ilk are favorably inclined to support Republican candidates, (particularly incumbent Republicans). According to a recent research paper put out by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 57.7% of large company CEOs consistently donated to Republicans, while only 18.6% donated to Democrats, with the rest leaning toward neither party.
However, Trump is no ordinary Republican, these are not ordinary times, plus Biden is hardly a Molotov-cocktail-throwing socialist.
In fact, Trump has seen his support amongst business leaders decline at least in terms of big donations. Why? It’s not so much his economic policies—deregulation, tax cuts and even bashing China—which many business leaders find most palatable—so much as it is his affinity for, or at the very least his refusal to disavow, the radical right, conspiracists and racist elements, coupled actions of his cronies and his personal style that businesspeople find off putting. Even Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, Trump’s biggest supporter on Wall Street, said according to the New York Times that Trump’s negotiating style was sometimes “quite difficult to watch.” (Privately Schwarzman is said to be a bit less complimentary.)
“In a typical year, a CEO and senior executive might look at the corporate tax rate in 2014 compared to 2019, and say that’s important,” says Paul Thornell, former managing director for federal government affairs at Citigroup, who is now a principal at the lobbying firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “[But] Trump has been such a disaster on so many levels — international relationships, how he demeaned various races and ethnicities, how he conducts business — it affects how they manage their enterprise, people, and brand.
“The president isn’t going to get nothing,” Thornell says. But when it comes to executives, he could have had more.
Having said that, let’s take a look at some of the president’s business supporters:
Trump and the GOP are still taking in big money from the likes of Schwarzman, Timothy Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking fortune, Linda McMahon, the former pro wrestling executive, and Geoffrey Palmer, a polo-playing, Beverly Hills-based real estate magnate, as well as Marvel Entertainment’s Isaac Perlmutter and Oracle CEO Safra Catz, according to Reuters. (Catz and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison—who held a fundraiser for the president in February—are a rare island of support for Trump in Silicon Valley. The software giant has a long history of working with the U.S government.) Trump and the GOP also still have support of dozens of ultra-wealthy Americans such as Charles Schwab, Paul Singer of Elliot Management and Warren Stephens of Arkansas’ Stephens Inc., according to NPR.
Forbes reports that Trump has picked up some support from the 1% of the 1% including: Bernard Marcus (co-founder of Home Depot), Rodger Riney (founder of Scottrade), and Mississippi’s Thomas Duff (tires, diversified.) Also supporting the president this go-round are NYSE chief Jeffrey Sprecher and his wife Kelly Loeffler, who happens to be running for Senate from Georgia, as well as Robert Wood Johnson IV, of the J&J fortune and the U.S. ambassador to Britain (“Woody’ as he’s known, was recently found to have “sometimes made inappropriate or insensitive comments on topics generally considered Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)-sensitive, such as religion, sex, or color,” according to the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.)
Two Saturdays ago billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made much of his fortune betting against the U.S. housing market heading into the 2008/2009 financial crisis, held a fundraiser for Trump at his swanky Southampton home. The 50 or so guests, (the list has not been reported), paid half a million bucks for the privilege.
The thinking by a New Yorker like Paulson, whose father immigrated from Ecuador and whose mother’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (Paulson’s wife emigrated from Romania as well), must go something like this: ‘Hey I made $100 million from my hedge fund last year, but if Biden were president I would only make $88 million. And by the way all American businesses benefit this way.’
But maybe there’s more to it, at least in Paulson’s case. Three years ago, Paulson and his wife wrote a letter to the elite Spence school in NYC, where the couple’s daughters were enrolled to complain about what they claimed was an “alarming pattern” of “anti-white indoctrination” in its curriculum,” according to the New York Post. (Excerpts from the letter make for interesting reading.) The couple threatened to withhold funding.
All of us have our reasons for supporting one politician or the other. Billionaires too.
Still, Wall Street may be turning for Biden. “It’s a naturally Republcan-leaning industry, but this Republican party isn’t the one they grew up in,” says Karen Petrou, a managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics, which consults with bank executives on policy. “[Wall Street is] socially liberal and economically conservative and the Trump administration has been the flip side of that.”
In fact, Biden seems to be outpacing the president when it comes to wealthy business people. (Forbes reports that “Biden Pulls Away In Race For Billionaire Donors, With 131 To Trump’s 99.”) And why not? Biden is very much a known quantity, (vice president for eight years, senator for 36), who, while somewhat friendly to labor unions, hasn’t crusaded against big business and in fact has been cozy with commercial interests, in particular credit card companies in his home state of Delaware.
Left-wing CEOs are a new thing
Now, let’s check out who’s supporting Joe Biden and the Democrats:
Yes there are some usual suspects like Penny Pritzker, George Soros, Thomas Steyer (former candidate himself of course) and Steven Spielberg.
But Biden has been raking it in more recently from the likes of: Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga); Barry Diller (IAC chairman); Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook co-founder); Sean Parker (early Facebook employee); Jeff Skoll (former president of eBay); Michelle Yee, wife of Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn); Evan Williams (Twitter co-founder); Nicole Systrom, wife of Kevin Systrom (co-founder of Instagram), Gary and Laura Lauder (of the Estee Lauder family); Jim Coulter (of private equity firm TPG) and Nicole Shanahan, wife of Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google.)
A few other interesting donors include Arthur Blank of Home Depot, (note that his co-founder Bernie Marcus supports Trump.) Also James Simons, founder of the giant hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, whose former lieutenant, Robert Mercer, famously gave large sums to Trump, backed Cambridge Analytica and partnered with the recently arrested Steve Bannon.
Rupert Murdoch’s son James also gave to the Dems and so did Jon Gray, the COO of Blackstone, countering his boss’s (Schwarzman) donations to Trump. Jacqueline Mars, heiress to Mars family fortune, historically a pretty conservative bunch, gave to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. So reportedly did Reed Hastings of Netflix, Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments and Laurene Powell Jobs.
These businesspeople may support Biden because they truck with liberal causes, or because they don’t like Trump, or because, hey, they like Joe and Kamala Harris. But some of them may be supporting Biden for the oldest reason in the book—because they think he’s going to win.
In fact, when it comes to the recently soaring stock market, some have suggested that it isn’t a rally based on Trump’s policies so much as it is a move up based on the prospect of Biden winning. “We certainly have seen a series of polls that point toward a Biden lead,” says Ed Mills, Washington policy analyst with Raymond James. “And we have seen the market do quite well in the face of a potential Biden administration, which leads me to believe a big part of what the market is trading off of is the continuation of fiscal support, which a Biden administration, especially a Democratic sweep, is most likely to deliver.”
The Democrats need to be careful though, as big money could cut both ways. Yes, fat checks from fat cats help fund the campaign, but shhhh, don’t tell Bernie Sanders and his supporters whom Biden really needs to turn out on November 3rd. Trump too, may not want to advertise his Wall Street support in front of his base. Truth be told, it’s always been a deal with the devil for both parties when it comes to big money, especially from Wall Street.
It's worth noting that this species of left-wing CEOs is a new, new thing. Back when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, CEOs were all Republicans. A few relatively progressive ones were Rockefeller Republicans (like David Rockefeller, CEO of Chase Manhattan, himself.) There were also some fringey, to-the-right-of-Atilla-the-Hun types, (how Joe Coors was described by his brother), but mostly CEOs were moderate Business Roundtable, Taft Republicans.
What about the Democrats? How did they get their money? There was some from Hollywood and a bit of quiet dollars from Wall Street too. But the power and money for the party came mostly from organized labor like the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the United Mine Workers.
It was really the birth of Silicon Valley that upended the status quo. All of a sudden, an iconoclast like Steve Jobs could create a huge company and accumulate massive wealth and power for himself along the way. This startup to giant company phenomena ushered in a new wave of ‘think different,’ left-leaning CEOs, like Job’s successor, Tim Cook, who now runs the most valuable company on the planet. Leaving aside a few lefty companies like Patagonia (private) and Ben & Jerry’s (owned by Unilever), the idea that someone like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, leading a Fortune 200 company, could conceivably have a sit-down with someone like AOC and find common ground would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. (And of course employees at Silicon Valley companies firms tend to be decidedly liberal, though less so at Qualcomm and the aforementioned Oracle.)
Today, there are more liberal CEOs than ever, as evidenced in a story from a few years ago by Yahoo Finance’s Rick Newman on liberal politics of CEOs. Companies are now measured or ranked by ESG (environmental social, and governance factors), and some studies show them outperforming the indexes. Social awareness by CEOs seems to be rising as well. “Business executives seem to have a heightened focus on reputation and brand management,” says Thornell of the lobbying firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “The George Floyd killing—and a lot of global unrest and protests—have magnified that.”
Still politics will always be tricky stuff for big companies. I remember Paul Allaire, former CEO of Xerox, who was known as a Democrat back in the 1990s, (which believe it or not was kind of noteworthy.) Ultimately it didn’t seem to affect the well-being of the company though, as over time Xerox failed to keep pace with technological change.
And of course some companies have a reputation as being conservative, such as Hobby Lobby, Cabela’s and Sheetz. Exxon Mobil too, has always been known as a conservative, but same as Xerox, politics didn’t help that company either as the global oil glut has bashed the stock. And then just this week, Goodyear stepped into it, when the company was called out for making a distinction between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
In the end it might not be about politics, it might be about values says Penny Pennington, the managing partner of financial services company Edward Jones Investments. Her company—which in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd committed to analyze possible pay differential along racial lines and pledged to make a “meaningful increase” in diversity among its financial advisors and senior leadership—serves 7 million American families and as such, taking political stands are difficult to execute. “I really prefer to talk about ideals, values and principles,” Pennington says. “We’re coming at it from a standpoint of ideals that for us are rooted in humanity and relationship and trust.” Makes sense.
It’s also instructive to watch Walmart, with its 1.5 million U.S. employees and more than 150 million weekly U.S. customers. CEO Doug McMillon has a tough remit here. Does a company that size lead or follow? McMillon gave his take in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
“‘There is not a part of me that says, ‘That’s political. I’d love to get involved in that,’ ” he said. But “society expects things of leading companies and sometimes we should take a stance on something.’ Some public statements are ‘easier for us,’ he added, such as supporting environmental sustainability and military veterans, but ‘on social issues it gets tougher,’ he said. ‘Ideally we wouldn’t lead on very many things.’”
But carefully, when it comes to gay rights, guns and racial equality, McMillon has distanced Walmart slightly from President Trump and his base, where before it would have at the very least been silent.
Walmart is not alone. Investingwatchdog.com provides conservatives with “the definitive list of liberal, progressive and/or anti-Trump companies that you should boycott.” (These are big companies mind you, not mom and pops.) The list now extends to scores of companies including Walmart and companies typically considered conservative like Chick-fil-A and Papa John’s. “You may find it impractical to boycott all of these companies,” the site acknowledges, “but just keep in mind that there are ways to partially boycott a company (example: Not buying food/drinks, uniforms if you attend NFL games).”
The list is getting longer. At some point Investingwatchdog.com may want to flip the script and start a definitive list of companies that you should not boycott. It would be shorter.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on August 22, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.