Which Candidate Is Silicon Valley Supporting in the California Democratic Primary?

Sen. Bernie Sanders is the top fundraiser among Big Tech employees, despite his support of policies that might hurt them in the pocketbook.
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Silicon Valley is opening up its checkbook for the Democratic presidential primary -- but there's no runaway favorite as of yet. 

With the California primary coming up on Tuesday and 415 delegates at stake, polls show Sen. Bernie Sanders in the lead among the state's primary voters. But within the influential tech industry, allegiances and fundraising clout have been fractured among several contenders.

With a few high-profile exceptions -- such as investor Peter Thiel and Oracle  (ORCL) - Get Report chairman Larry Ellison, both Trump backers -- Silicon Valley mirrors deep-blue California as a whole. In the 2016 general election, a whopping 97 percent of donations by employees of Facebook  (FB) - Get Report, Apple , Alphabet  (GOOGL) - Get Report and Amazon  (AMZN) - Get Report went to Hillary Clinton, with the rest split between Trump and third-party candidates.

At the same time, the donations of rank-and-file employees in tech don’t always square with the industry’s interests, at least not on the face of it. This primary cycle, the most successful fundraiser among Big Tech workers is one of its loudest critics: Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I think this reflects Silicon Valley's location at the intersection of Bernie's two biggest demographics: The very liberal and those under 45,” said Ian Woods of Goods Unite Us, a firm that analyzes campaign finance.

In the fourth quarter, Sanders led the pack in donations from workers at Alphabet, Apple, Amazon or Facebook, with a $273,345 quarterly haul according to FEC filings. Andrew Yang -- an entrepreneur who has since dropped out -- wasn’t far behind Sanders, with $239,004 raised. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another prominent industry critic who called for a breakup of major tech firms, came in third with a $166,796 quarterly haul.

Between Sanders and Warren, several of the policies proposed -- if ever enacted --would likely have a negative impact on certain aspects of the tech or startup economies, added George Arison, founder of the car selling platform Shift and an active Silicon Valley political donor. As one example, Sanders’ Medicare for All idea would eliminate the top-tier insurance benefits offered at most major tech firms, he noted. Sanders also recently proposed a change in how employee stock options are taxed, which would make them taxable when they vest -- not when they are exercised and become liquid cash.

“There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley, probably more young people than older people...who are voting based on moral imperatives that they see,” said Arison. “They don’t think through all the implications of supporting Bernie or Warren, but from a moral perspective, they agree with them.”

Until he dropped out of the race on Sunday night, Pete Buttigieg was another candidate who’d been embraced in many corners of Silicon Valley. But his path was a bit different from Sen. Sanders, who entered the race already a nationally known figure with a sprawling fundraising machine. Buttigieg, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar who also spent time working at McKinsey, entered the race with a valuable network of his own to tap into to help get the word out in Silicon Valley.

The former South Bend mayor had visited Silicon Valley and San Francisco several times throughout his campaign, and those visits included high-dollar fundraisers hosted by Silicon Valley CEOs and other high-dollar donors tied to the tech industry. 

All that money raised didn't translate to success in the polls, however -- Buttigieg was polling in fifth place in California according to an aggregate compiled by the 538 website. Buttigieg announced his withdrawal from the race on Sunday following a fourth-place finish in South Carolina, which former Vice President Joe Biden won by a wide margin. 

Where all of Buttigieg's money and support goes now remains to be seen. However, the NYTimes reported that Buttigieg spoke with Biden on Sunday night about the possibility of lending his endorsement.