Who’s Winning the Vampire Squid Primary?

From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, top Democrats have long been beholden to the predatory and socially useless private equity industry. This time, the finance bros are donating in droves to Biden, Buttigieg . . . and Deval Patrick (?). They just really want to stop Bernie Sanders.

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden shake hands after the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Private equity, as an industry, has been responsible for massive wealth theft in recent years: that is, large-scale redistribution of wealth upward, from the working class to the ownership class. Whether through bankruptcies and job loss (famously at Toys “R” Us, for example), the looting of pensions, or increasing the ranks of the billionaire class, private equity is an enemy of the 99 percent and especially the working class.

The sector’s profiteers have money to spend to buy political influence, and they’d love to make a return on that investment. The good news is, some of their favorite candidates are tanking.

Bernie Sanders is running a solid second in most polls, with a message strongly opposed to the exploitation and inequality that private equity (PE) epitomizes. Not surprisingly, the industry flatly does not want either Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to be president, and its employees haven’t donated significant sums to either candidate. In fact, judging from their contributions, the industry — apart from the segment supporting Trump out of pure short-term id — is desperate to find candidates who can defeat the Left within the Democratic Party. PE doesn’t like the sound of wealth taxes, nor of redistributive programs like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or free college.

Nor does it appear to like the women in this cycle, not even the centrists they’ve supported in the past, like Kamala Harris (may her campaign rest in peace) or Amy Klobuchar. Sexism could be a factor: private equity is a male-dominated industry; a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis recently found that globally, women fill only 8 percent of senior investment jobs at the ten largest PE firms. In trying to boost their numbers of women, according to a recent study, PE firms have struggled even more than venture capital and hedge funds. In addition to their rapacious role in class warfare, PE firms are seriously patriarchal organizations.

Joe Biden is a huge favorite of PE donors, getting large sums from Blackstone and drawing more contributions from the Carlyle Group and Apollo Global Management than any other candidate. Blackstone employees have given slightly more to McKinsey alum and acknowledged smarty-pants Mayor Pete Buttigieg. KKR employees have also favored the South Bend mayor. Bain Capital employees have overwhelmingly favored Biden, though they enjoyed a flirtation with Beto O’Rourke and have also been generous with Mayor Pete.

But the industry has also been crushed out on some truly unpopular candidates.

Hedge fund billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, polling at less than 2 percent, has attracted support from Bain, Hellman & Friedman, and General Atlantic (as well as from his own hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management).

A bigger industry fave is Cory Booker, who, while losing much interest from big donors after he denounced super PACs, has reaped huge contributions from PE titans at firms like Harvest Partners, Paloma Equity Partners, and Apollo, as well as Blackstone. He’s polling at less than 2 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, which takes an average of five different polls.

Then there’s Deval Patrick, who outpaces everyone in PE support and underperforms almost everyone in the polls. Patrick, whose awfulness we’ve recently discussed, and who stepped down from Bain Capital the very week he announced he was entering the primary, will, of course, be the favored son of the industry since he is literally one of them. Before he even officially entered the race, he got $350,000 from a daddy-and-me pair of billionaire golf enthusiasts, Paul and Dan Fireman, who run a Boston private equity firm. Patrick is polling at less than half a percentage point.

Even back in 2012, when hatred of the rich and the finance industry wasn’t nearly as robust as it is now, GOP candidate Mitt Romney couldn’t live down the PE stigma. His record at Bain Capital dogged him even in the Republican primary, and in the general election, Obama ran against it hard. Now, in a far more populist moment, private equity is seen as even more toxic. That doesn’t mean the industry couldn’t have a significant influence: Biden is unfortunately still a front-runner, and Mayor Pete doesn’t seem to be going away. Some PE donors — nihilistic asset-strippers that they are — will turn to Trump in the general election. But it’s good news that many of their pet Democrats are faring so poorly.