Billionaire Warren Buffett has long resisted calls to throw his massive wealth behind a campaign and even eschewed public rallies that would lend his vaunted reputation to a candidate.
There are signs that’s changing. While Buffett, 85, has yet to make a major financial contribution, he’s taking the rare step of appearing Wednesday at a public event with Hillary Clinton. That rally is scheduled to follow a fundraiser for the presidential candidate in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, the second event he’s headlining for her this month.
“He’s always considered elections important,” said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has worked as a congressional aide, a state party leader and as chief of staff to the city’s mayor. “But this year he really wants Hillary to win.”
The appearances, though, still may be the best Clinton can hope for from Buffett, who is an outspoken critic of the unlimited spending in politics that was set in motion by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Even so, the events in Nebraska, which doesn’t hold its Democratic caucus until March, are designed for maximum impact: much of neighboring Iowa, which holds the first caucus in the nation February 1, tunes in to Omaha television.
“The Omaha media market is one third of Iowa,” said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who ran for the party’s 1992 nomination against Bill Clinton. “If Warren were living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.”
The events this week in Omaha are the culmination of a long evolution for the billionaire. The son of a Republican congressman, Buffett started shifting his allegiance to Democrats decades ago. He has become more active as the Republican Party moved further to the right, according to a person familiar with his thinking who asked not to be identified to protect their relationship.
During the 2008 campaign, Buffett appeared as a featured guest at fundraisers for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but declined to endorse either during the primaries and limited his contributions to the legal maximum that could be given directly to candidates. Even after Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and stumped for re-election touting the “Buffett Rule” for middle class taxes, the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway limited his commitment of time and cash.
Buffett, who didn’t respond to a request for comment left with an assistant, has endorsed Clinton’s candidacy since 2012, when he said in an interview with CNN that no one would be better qualified to run the country.
“She has a vision for America that’s very similar to mine in terms of everybody being included in the prosperity we enjoy,” he told Bloomberg earlier this year. “And I think that she would work very, very hard at getting policies implemented that would lead to that.”
Yet as Clinton allies brag about his buy-in, some of the billionaire’s longtime acquaintances are doubtful he’ll have that great an impact.
Richard Holland, one of Buffett’s early investors, has been leaning on his friend for years to give more money to Democrats — with little success. Buffett has been more wrapped up in running his company than becoming a “big wheel” in politics, Holland said.
“A lot of people admire Warren,” he said. “I believe that he can influence voting, but I don’t know how much.”
Kerrey said Buffett can be a great confidant to politicians, offering thoughtful advice that sometimes runs contrary to his own economic interests. But campaigns sometimes hype their association with him to attract attention.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt” to have Buffett engaged, Kerrey said. “But it’s not a game changer.”
Buffett was the main draw at an event in New York last week, for which a dozen mostly Wall Street attendees committed $33,400 each to the Hillary Victory Fund, and will join Clinton on Wednesday morning in Omaha for what’s being billed as a conversation between the two. Tickets start at $500 and go up to $2,700 for donors who want a photo with both. Those who raise $27,000 or more will have access to a reception with the candidate and billionaire.
At the rally afterward at Omaha’s Sokol Auditorium, the duo will talk about their shared view of inequities in the tax code. Clinton has spent the past month highlighting her commitment to avoid tax increases on families earning less than $250,000 a year — a stance she argues that neither one of her Democratic opponents will take.
While Clinton and Buffett see eye-to-eye on taxes for individuals, some of his business moves appear to have been at odds with her policy positions. Last week, she rolled out her plans aimed at stopping inversions and other maneuvers that cut corporate tax rates by shifting profits overseas. Berkshire invested $3 billion in Burger King’s 2014 buyout of Canada’s Tim Hortons. The move, which Buffett said wasn’t about the tax advantage, drew criticism from lawmakers including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Buffett may never be the Democrats’ antidote to Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch or Sheldon Adelson, but his political contributions have ratcheted up as he’s become more engaged. In the 2012 election cycle, he gave almost $200,000 to campaigns and party committees, according to federal and state records. Two years later, he cut a $100,000 check to Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful bid for Nebraska governor. (The state doesn’t have contribution limits.) That was followed by a $25,000 donation to a political action committee that helped lay the groundwork for Clinton’s current run. He also contributed the $2,700 maximum to her primary campaign in April.
“I support her,” he said on CNN that month. “I would not write a huge check. I would go out and raise money for her. I’d be delighted to do that. I would hope to do it. I did some of that in 2008. I just don’t believe that the election should be decided by the super rich.”