Bill Gates Tops Steve Jobs in Political Donations; Microsoft Outspends Apple Inside the Beltway

There was a time when Bill Gates wouldn't deign to politick. He was a successful software salesman who didn't need to grease palms or seek government largesse. His company and employees donated a mere $251,474 during the 1996 federal election cycle, for example. Then came 1998, the beginning of Microsoft's anti-trust battle with the feds, followed by Gates' cry for help.

An army of lawyers, lobbyists, and pols responded, lured by the smell of real money. When the action was settled in 2001 after MS agreed to share some of its system secrets, the company had become a Beltway player. From 1998 through 2010, MS donated more than $20 million to presidential and other federal candidates. Its lobbying investment rose from a negligible amount in the mid-1990s to $9 million annually.

And the beat goes on. Today Microsoft's lobbying core tops 100, according to a new study, and its insider politicking has left chief rival Apple, for one, in the dust, with Gates personally outspending Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

A spending analysis of the two electronic honchos by D.C. money watchdog Center for Responsive Politics gives the donor trophy to Gates. In the last decade, the richest man in Medina gave $442,000 to national candidates, while Jobs gave $254,000. (His wife Laurene Powell Jobs, however, donated more than $502,915 federally, while Melinda Gates was down for only $68,000).

Most of Gates' contributions--$192,000--went to Republicans. All of Jobs' donations went to Democrats.

Apple had about 16 registered lobbyists on the books during the first three quarters of 2010, CRP found. A high percentage passed through the D.C. revolving door--14 of 16 cashing in on connections made in previous positions working for the federal government. But Microsoft hired 103 lobbyists during the first nine months of 2010, 83 of whom have previous federal government experience.

The study notes that lawmakers--as individual consumers and stockholders--have a business liking for MS. More of them personally purchased more holdings in Microsoft than in Apple in every year since 2004, though Apple is making a comeback.

Bottom line:

With sleek products and smart advertising that have charmed consumers, Apple might seem to have the upper hand in the marketplace. The company is also investing more and more cash into its political operation. But ultimately, it's Microsoft that comes out on top in this digital matchup. With a longtime presence inside the Beltway and a bulging political budget, Microsoft spends millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions--enough to still put the prize well out of reach for a steadily surging Apple
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