Race for the presidency: The colour of money

As the downturn continues in the US, the race for the White House will be won by the candidate who does the best job of convincing voters that he has the right answers to their economic woes. No wonder both John McCain and Barack Obama are desperate to win the endorsements of the nation's leading business figures

Stephen Foley
Wednesday 20 August 2008 00:00 BST

It is because of Iraq that John McCain and Barack Obama are fighting for the US presidency. Both candidates were, in very different ways, defined by their positions on the war – McCain as the national security champion, Obama as the one Democrat who had the courage to say no.

Today, though, foreign policy debates have slipped far down the agenda, overtaken by the urgency of dealing with a wave of foreclosures in the housing market and the deepening effects of the credit crisis on the US economy. And for both candidates, this is a big problem.

Many Democrat pundits cite Obama's failure to string a coherent narrative together on the economy as the reason for his failure to break a tie in the opinion polls. John McCain's most famous soundbite on the economy is that it's not his strong suit, but at least he bought the autobiography of Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. (He added that he hadn't read it yet.)

Given this uninspiring state of affairs, it is little wonder that the two candidates are scrambling to win endorsements from those with genuine economic credentials: big business chief executives. So who is putting campaign posters up in the corner office – and for which candidate?

At this stage, there is one thing we can say. McCain is winning the chief executive vote hands down. That might not be surprising, since business is a traditional Republican Party constituency, in opposition to the unions which have their strongest power base on the Democrat side. What is surprising, however, is that such a large number of McCain's cheerleaders should come from Silicon Valley. Not bad, for a septuagenarian who says he has "never felt the particular need to email".

Fighting the McCain corner most vociferously are two tech industry heavyweights, Meg Whitman, until last year the chief executive of eBay, and Carly Fiorina, the former boss of Hewlett-Packard, the PC manufacturer.

Ms Fiorina was in early, praising McCain back in January, even before he had sewn up the nomination, as a man who understands what the role of government should be, by which she meant "minimal". Since then, she has been rewarded with the chairmanship of one of the Republican National Committee's fund raising and get-out-the-vote efforts, and she often campaigns with, and for, McCain.

Last weekend, answering economic questions, McCain promised Ms Whitman would be a senior adviser to his administration. She only switched to McCain when he vanquished Mitt Romney, the private equity millionaire, who was corporate America's first choice for the Republican nomination, but she is now co-chair of his national campaign, and is widely believed to be plotting a run for the governorship of California in 2010.

As well as garlanding his business credentials with appearances on the stump, both women have also been tapping up their extensive contacts sheets in Silicon Valley, helping build up a list of tech industry bosses who are ready to go public with support for the Republican candidate. This "Tech 100" list could be unveiled in the next few days. The names on it are likely to include the Cisco Systems boss, John Chambers, and Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems, already among McCain's vocal supporters.

So the CEO stars are racking up for McCain. So is the CEO money. A recent analysis of campaign data showed that the chief executives of the biggest 100 companies in the Fortune 500 have given a collective $208,200 (£111,700) in donations to McCain – more than 10 times the $20,400 donated to Obama. Some of these generous executives have been hedging their bets, handing cheques to both candidates, attending both sets of fundraisers. It is all good networking, after all.

Others, however, have swung decisively in favour of McCain. On top of the maximum $4,600 that he could have contributed to the candidate personally, Ivan Seidenberg – the chief executive of Verizon Communications, Vodafone's US mobile phone partner – has contributed a further $28,000 to the McCain campaign's political action committee.

The analysis of the political donations of the Fortune 500's most prominent chief executives caused a bit of a stir, since it added to the sense of nervousness on the Democrat side. It would be a kooky day in US politics if this constituency favoured the Democrats, but the 10-to-one lead by McCain contrasted sharply with the situation in the 2004 presidential election. Then, the Democrat nominee John Kerry at least managed to rake in almost three-quarters as much as George W Bush did from the same group of executives.

The Obama campaign dismissed the importance of the analysis, saying the Bush campaign had a much broader base of contributors among the Fortune 500's top chief execs, whereas McCain has raised more money from fewer people.

If the tech industry's stars hew to McCain, Wall Street appears split. John Thain, who runs Merrill Lynch, is a big contributor to McCain; Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, which is half-owned by Merrill Lynch, is supporting Obama.

Dick Fuld, chief executive of Lehman Brothers, has helped out both candidates in the past, and Wall Street is waiting to see if he will jump off the fence.

Obama's fundraising effort on Wall Street is deep and impressive, though, even if the very top names end up splitting close to evens. In large part, that is thanks to Robert Wolf, chief executive of UBS in the Americas and head of its US investment bank. He has been passing the hat for Obama since the very beginning of the upstart campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination, and is named among the biggest of the "bundlers" who raise more than $500,000 for a candidate from lots of other small donors.

Also, the most famous chief executive in corporate America is on Obama's side. He is Warren Buffett, the head of the insurance giant Berkshire Hathaway, a long-standing supporter of Democrat causes. Buffett appeared alongside Obama last month at an "economic summit" designed to show the candidate engaging with the credit crisis after his week abroad in Europe and the Middle East. It was a neat photo opportunity at the very least, better than McCain, for all his celebrity CEO endorsements, has so far managed Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and the PepsiCo boss, Indra Nooyi, were also among the participants that day, along with one intriguing addition: Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google. Schmidt has not explicitly endorsed Obama's campaign, but his long-time friend, Meg Whitman, conceded last week that he is "coming out on the other side" to her.

In terms of numbers, McCain may well have the edge in this race to court the CEO vote. But for fundraising prowess, Obama's Wall Street contacts may help more, and in Warren Buffett he has the poster boy of corporate America. If he can add Schmidt, and by implication the mighty technology company Google, to his firmament of stars, then Obama may be able to neutralise McCain's Silicon Valley power base. Watch this space.

In the red corner: McCain

Carly Fiorina

The former head of Hewlett-Packard, ousted after boardroom rows at the PC maker, has got a second career as a business pundit and author, and is now the go-to person on the McCain campaign for all business issues.

Meg Whitman

Since leaving eBay, the online retailer, last year, Ms Whitman has been positioning herself for a tilt at the governorship of California. Raising cash for the Republican candidate is her first foray into the world of politics.

John Chambers

The chief executive of Cisco Systems, one of the heavyweights in Silicon Valley, has been a stalwart supporter through the highs and lows of the McCain campaign, first signing on as an adviser in February 2007.

John Thain

The chief executive of Merrill Lynch is rumoured to want to follow his old Goldman Sachs mentor Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, into a role in federal government. He has contributed more than $30,000 to the McCain campaign.

Henry Kravis

The granddaddy of private equity, as founder of the legendary buy-out firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, is a fundraising boon to the McCain campaign and a powerful advocate for the Senator among New York's billionaire business set.

In the blue corner: Obama

Warren Buffett

The most famous face in corporate America and the world's richest man, the billionaire investor is an unabashed tax-the-rich Democrat, at Obama's side as the candidate unveiled plans to ease the mortgage crisis last month.

Paul Volcker

Where McCain once joked about his lack of understanding of economic issues by saying at least he owned Alan Greenspan's memoir, Obama is tapping advice from Greenspan's predecessor as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Robert Wolf

The president of the UBS investment bank was captivated by Obama at a Democrat function on Wall Street at the start of the primaries, and he has been a cheerleader and a powerful fundraiser ever since.

Larry Fink

The veteran bond trader has turned his money management firm BlackRock, into the largest in the world. Long "an Obama man", he was unfortunately reported telling an investment forum earlier this year he thought McCain would win.

Eric Schmidt

While he has not formally declared his allegiance, the Republicans believe Google's chief executive has been turned on by Obama's talk of creating jobs in green technology as a solution to economic crisis and global warming.

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