Warren and Buttigieg Are Split on Big Tech as 2020 Presidential Race Heats Up
As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to take the bench and testify in front of Congress on Wednesday about election security, breaking up big tech, and his proposal for a new cryptocurrency, political operatives are working hard to link up-and-coming 2020 candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to the politically controversial figure.
Just hours after a new poll out of Iowa put Buttigieg within a margin of error of 2020 frontrunner Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), news was leaked to Bloomberg that Zuckerberg had sent several resumes to the Buttigieg campaign recommending staff hires—two of whom were brought onboard.
Zuckerberg later confirmed to reporters on a rare press call that this had been the case, caveating that, “I think this should probably not be misconstrued as if I’m like deeply involved in trying to support their campaign or something like that.”
Still, the Buttigieg campaign took great pains to explain away the discrepancy on Monday.
Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, Lis Smith, tweeted about the report at least eight times, pointing out that the campaign had also taken staff recommendations from former presidents, members of Congress and civil rights leaders.
“We make staff decisions on how to build the best team in politics, which I’m proud to report we have!,” wrote Smith, adding that, “this is a sign that Pete’s opponents know his message is catching fire. Tune out this noise.”
But Buttigieg does share a long-standing relationship with the billionaire tech founder whom Warren has made an enemy of in her own presidential campaign. The pair overlapped as undergraduates at Harvard University and have a number of old friends in common. In 2017, Zuckerberg live streamed a tour of South Bend, Ind., with Buttigeig.
Facebook executives including David Marcus, who leads Facebook’s cryptocurrency efforts; Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s longest-serving executive after Zuckerberg; and Chris Cox, former chief product officer have also donated to Buttigieg’s campaign.
“There’s nothing unethical about calling friends in business and saying ‘who can I hire?’ It’s quite common,” Richard Painter, White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, told Fortune. “On the other hand, people tend to hire out of companies where their sympathies lie. There’s certainly a difference in philosophy between Warren and Buttigieg, one is closer to people like Zuckerberg.”
The incident serves to highlight what is becoming a clear distinction between the progressive and more moderate factions of the 2020 democratic field: their approach to big tech.
Warren has repeatedly called out Zuckerberg on his own platform and on billboards in San Francisco and refuses to hold campaign events in Silicon Valley. The candidate has made breaking up big tech companies like Facebook a high-profile part of her campaign platform.
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power—too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” she wrote on her official Medium account. “And we must ensure that Russia—or any other foreign power—can’t use Facebook or any other form of social media to influence our elections.”
Buttigieg, meanwhile, said in May that the Federal Trade Commission has “reached it limits” with regulating tech companies, but has not released any official plan to bolster the agency.
During October’s primary debates, the candidate remained silent when the topic of power in Silicon Valley was raised. The combat veteran has also racked up significant campaign contributions through fundraising events hosted by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Nest Labs co-founder Matt Rogers, and Chelsea Kohler, director of product communications at Uber.
“When you look at democratic primary voters, they are sour on conglomerates and corporate America. Facebook, to many people, is the embodiment of corporate America,” democratic strategist Brad Bannon told Fortune. “It fits in with Warren’s background, she grew to prominence going after the big banks and now she’s going after another entity that is a corporate enemy, so she will find a ready audience for any attacks on Facebook.”
But Buttigieg, said Bannon, sees political advantage to adhering himself to the tech set. “Many of the corporate types who supported [former Vice President and 2020 candidate] Joe Biden have retired, it’s all about tech leaders like Zuckerberg now and they need someone new, a new Biden. They found a young attractive rising candidate to be the antii-Warren: Buttigieg.”
The question is whether the money Silicon Valley wields can override anti-Facebook sentiment amongst U.S. voters: a June Fox News poll found that 61% of Americans believe Facebook has too much power. In a press phone call ahead of his Congressional testimony, Zuckerberg admitted that his company had not done all that it could to prevent foreign entities from influencing elections in the United States, admitting that Facebook had been “on our back foot,” about security before outlining a number of new initiatives to prevent it from happening again.
Still, Painter doesn’t think a candidate’s approach to big tech will be a defining issue in the 2020 election.
“Big tech is more of an issue with progressives, and people are currently trying to appeal to a small number of progressives to rock poll numbers,” he said. “But the average voter isn’t angry at Facebook or Twitter or Microsoft, it’s the financial sector that they care about.”