When Americans vote on Nov. 8, count on seeing pictures of Warren Buffett, behind the wheel of a vintage red bus called Ollie the Trolley, driving fellow residents of Omaha, Neb., to polling stations to cast a ballot for anyone but Donald Trump.
Berkshire Hathaway's celebrity CEO made a splash this week by campaigning beside Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, denouncing her Republican rival and pledging that, to get out the vote, "no matter how cold, no matter how snowy, no matter how rainy, icy, whatever it may be, I'm going to take at least 10 people to the polls."
Mr. Buffett, who is worth about $60-billion (U.S.), is the richest and arguably the highest-profile business leader to attack Mr. Trump, but he's far from alone in questioning the competence and even the sanity of the real-estate-developer-turned-reality-TV-star. Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer Meg Whitman, a noted Republican fundraiser, called him a demagogue. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban referred to Mr. Trump as "bat-shit crazy."
In a campaign that has defied convention , can even the most credible of CEOs sway voters? And if well-intentioned warnings about Mr. Trump from top executives are ignored – or even cause Americans to vote for him – what does that say about public trust in business?
The first thing they teach at CEO survival camp is that business leaders wade into the political swamp at their peril. It's risky enough to voice an opinion on low-key issues such as tax policy or government deficits. For the CEO of a large, publicly traded company to openly endorse one candidate over another in a bitterly partisan contest is almost revolutionary.
However, this is an election that has one U.S. presidential candidate, Mr. Trump, actually promising a revolution. And a race in which many CEOs are stepping up to endorse the quintessential status quo candidate in Ms. Clinton, and denounce Mr. Trump in the harshest terms.
And if the CEOs' strategy backfires? The recent track record of CEOs who took sides on a controversial vote is telling. British and global corporate leaders were solidly in the "Remain" camp during the Brexit referendum, with a variety of CEOs warning that leaving the European Union was bad for business. We know how voters responded. So while it's hard to conceive of a more likeable CEO-campaigner than Mr. Buffett, you can also make a case that having the Oracle of Omaha weigh in will drive voters to the controversial GOP candidate.
Mr. Buffett, like Ms. Clinton, is a charter member of the business establishment. While Berkshire reports tend to focus on consumer-friendly investments such as Dairy Queen and Duracell, the company is deeply embedded in high finance as a leading insurer.
Voters who are paying attention know Mr. Buffett profited handsomely from throwing Goldman Sachs a lifeline during the financial crisis, and Mr. Trump is winning over a segment of voters by demonizing Wall Street. At Kraft Heinz, a large Berkshire holding, a tough restructuring is spurring the job losses that feed into Mr. Trump's pitch to angry blue-collar workers.
The U.S. election comes down to an issue of trust. On that front, there's non-political polling data that raise serious doubts about the influence that business leaders and the media have on voters.
Research firm Edelman runs an annual survey called a "Trust Barometer" across 28 countries, asking citizens whether they have faith in "government, business, non-governmental organizations and media to do what is right." CEO Richard Edelman opened this year's report, published in January, by saying: "There is deeply disturbing news … A yawning trust gap is emerging between elite and mass populations."
In the United States, Edelman found that what it called the "informed public" did trust their leaders and institutions. However, among the "mass population," there was deep distrust for the U.S. government, big business and media. Americans have less faith in their leaders than Brazilians and Italians. That mistrust is fuelling populist, anti-establishment campaigns. As Mr. Edelman said: "Trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France."
Plenty of people will listen to the advice coming from Mr. Buffett and other CEOs and vote for Ms. Clinton this fall. But there is also a strong possibility that some of the folks who ride Ollie the Trolley in November will walk into the voting booth and endorse Mr. Trump, in part out of anger at corporate leaders.
Sounding off on Trump
How in the world can you stand up to a couple of parents who lost a son and talk about sacrificing because you were building a bunch of buildings? … Have you no sense of decency, sir? –Warren Buffett
Throughout his career, Trump has left behind a well-documented record of bankruptcies, lawsuits, and angry shareholders and contractors who feel cheated … He says he wants to run the nation like he has run his business. God help us. –Michael Bloomberg
Donald Trump's demagoguery has undermined the fabric of our national character. –Meg Whitman