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What Does Big Tech Want From Buttigieg?

The 2020 presidential candidate raised a mountain of money last quarter, and a lot of it came from Silicon Valley.

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Pete Buttigieg made more than a few jaws drop last week when he released quarterly donation tallies that outperformed his place in the opinion polls by a large margin. Between April and July, Buttigieg raised a staggering $25 million from nearly 300,000 donors—more than any other candidate in the race, including consistent frontrunner Joe Biden and small-donor machine Bernie Sanders. Although Buttigieg continues to poll respectably, he rarely cracks double-digits. (He currently hovers between 4 and 8 percent in recent polls.) The large haul will allow him to expand his operations to more parts of the country and invest in building a stronger campaign infrastructure in key early primary states.

As The New York Times observed shortly after Buttigieg posted his haul, his fundraising success owes something to his omnivorous approach. Some candidates, like Biden, have focused almost exclusively on big-ticket donors, while others, like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have focused on a broad base of donors who give in smaller amounts. Buttigieg has welcomed them all, though his dollars-per-donor numbers are much closer to Biden’s than to those of Sanders and Warren, suggesting a more significant reliance on wealthy backers. “We take an ‘all of the above’ fundraising strategy from one dollar online donations, donations made through social media, all the way up to max contributions and having people raise money on our behalf,” a campaign aide told Yahoo, on the condition of anonymity.

Those numbers are backed up by the fact that Buttigieg has also become the toast of campaign contribution bundlers—and not just those with ties to the last two Democratic presidential nominees. Donors on Wall Street and, particularly, in Silicon Valley, appear to favor the South Bend, Indiana mayor more than both Biden and California native Kamala Harris. The question is why—what does Big Tech expect from Mayor Pete?

To some extent, Buttigieg’s growing popularity with the tech sector stems from his growing popularity with white, educated, and affluent voters. Buttigieg is polling reasonably well, despite not resonating at all with many voters of color. For big donors wary of the party’s turn to the left—and of Warren’s and Sanders’s promises to change the regulatory environment—Buttigieg is an exciting new candidate. At 37, he’s also one who has a long career ahead of him regardless of how this primary shakes out: For business elites, getting in early with a politician can pay off in the long-run. Finally, with Biden’s support appearing to be relatively soft, Mayor Pete also represents the presidential primaries equivalent of a “safety school.” If the former vice president falters, or if his campaign continues to resemble a never-ending apology tour, donors are investing in contingency candidates, and right now that means Buttigieg and Harris.

But Buttigieg’s connections to Silicon Valley also run deep. At Harvard at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg, he befriended two of the Facebook founder’s roommates—former New Republic owner Chris Hughes and Joe Green—and became Facebook user number 287. When Zuckerberg went on his (attempted) image-bolstering road trip in 2017, he knocked on Buttigieg’s door. The two drove around Indiana together. “I’m here with my friend, Pete Buttigieg, who’s the mayor here,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Live post. “One of the youngest mayors in America.”

As mayor, Buttigieg has also worked diligently to connect South Bend with Silicon Valley companies. In his 2019 memoir, The Shortest Way Home, he presents himself as a data junkie, someone intent on using technology to approach the challenges executives face—in the case of running a mid-sized American city, this meant traffic and sewers. He has also—like many other leaders of struggling cities—pushed to turn South Bend into a hub for tech investment, and lobbied for it to become a beacon in the “Silicon Prairie.” In his book, he comes across like a mix of a young tech executive and a technocrat, gushing about “machine learning” and “big data.”

And Buttigieg caught Big Tech’s eye in part because he speaks the language of Silicon Valley—and because as a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, he has deep alumni and class-based connections to the leaders of tech companies. Over the past two years, and particularly this year, he has exploited those connections. Buttigieg has cultivated ties with executives at companies like Facebook, Google, and Uber. His campaign manager explicitly referred to the campaign as being modeled on tech companies, telling the Associated Press, “We want to build a campaign that’s a little disruptive, kind of entrepreneurial. Right now, it feels like a startup.” The campaign’s national investment chair, meanwhile, is Swati Mylavarapu, a Silicon Valley veteran who has worked at several tech darlings, including Square and Flippable.

What does this mean for the policies of a man who wants to be the next president? Though relatively light on specifics—a phrase that can describe much of his campaign so far—Buttigieg has pledged to rein in Big Tech. “Antitrust law as we know it has begun to hit its limits with regulating tech companies,” Buttigieg said during an April CNN town hall. “It’s not designed to handle some of these tech companies where there’s actually no price at all. The product is made free, or at least it’s free on its face. We’ve learned in part because of the way our data are used by these companies that nothing is actually free.”

That is a fine place to start, although it notably stops well short of the more ambitious and sweeping proposals laid out by Sanders and Warren. In a later interview, Buttigieg said he would look at controlling tech with a “spectrum” of approaches, using fines and regulations, which might—or might not—include breaking up companies. Again, the mayor’s pitch was light on specifics.

That may help explain why Silicon Valley donors have shrugged it off. Or, it might be because Buttigieg appears to have directly called potential donors, telling them that he’s in their corner regardless of what he says in town halls or on a debate stage.

It’s the sort of private backchannel a tech-savvy candidate shouldn’t expect would stay secret in the social media age. But maybe that’s part of the point. If Buttigieg wants to have another fundraising quarter like this last one, the right people need to know where he really stands. Silicon Valley knows a friend when it sees one.