Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has stood in the pews at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, where in 2015 a deranged teenager with an affinity for white nationalism killed nine people, sparking a national debate over gun control and Confederate symbols.
He visited a truck stop in Iowa, where he asked drivers for their thoughts on how driverless vehicles might impact their industry.
In Nebraska, he went to a gay pride festival and visited a railroad, and in Ohio he mulled over the problems of opioid addiction with addicts and social workers.
Mr. Zuckerberg calls it a national listening tour — a fact-finding mission to look into the lives of his customers — but politicos say the visits, especially to Iowa and South Carolina, look like the sort of activity of someone preparing for a presidential run.
“He has been here, and he has been everywhere. So it is fascinating,” said Jessica Vanden Berg, an Iowa Democratic strategist. “I think it is intriguing. If you look at his Facebook page, it couldn’t be more perfect for his campaign.”
Jaime Harrison, associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Mr. Zuckerberg’s Charleston visit has tongues wagging.
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“I think it is an open door,” Mr. Harrison said. “If he wants to come in, the water is fine. Come on in.”
Facebook did not respond to an inquiry about Mr. Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, but the 33-year-old will be old enough to run for president in four years. The Constitution requires the chief executive to be at least 35.
Mr. Zuckerberg maintains that the tour is one of the annual personal challenges he sets for himself, and he has shot down the speculation that visits to key primary states has sparked. In previous years, he has sought to learn Mandarin, run 365 miles and read 25 books. This year, it’s to visit all 50 states.
“Going into this challenge, it seems we are at a turning point in history,” he posted on his Facebook page. “For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”
But even some who say they aren’t interested in presidential bids make the trips and decide to run.
That was the case for former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who in 2005 made trips to Iowa to try to get voters there talking about immigration. Mr. Tancredo said his goal was to force the eventual candidates to deal with the issue, but when the time came, Mr. Tancredo decided to run himself.
Immigration could also be a pivotal issue for Mr. Zuckerberg, who in 2013 spearheaded the launch of FWD.us, which has pushed for legalization of illegal immigrants and a more open immigration policy.
The group invested tens of millions of dollars to try to boost the Senate immigration bill that year that would have provided a quick path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. The proposal passed the Senate but was never sent to the House.
During the presidential race last year, the group sought to counter Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration as well as his vows to crack down on illegal immigration.
Mr. Zuckerberg also has focused on the subject on his Facebook page, highlighting how he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are helping provide 400 college scholarships to Dreamers in partnership with TheDream.US, which aims to help those who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children.
“We need a government that protects Dreamers,” he said.
Mr. Zuckerberg has steered clear of being affiliated as a Democrat or a Republican.
But he has provided some insight into his areas of interest — including in a Harvard commencement speech this year when he embraced criminal justice reform, online voting and the idea of exploring “universal basic income.”
In the first-ever Facebook Communities Summit in Illinois, he announced a new mission for the company: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
“We have to build a world where every single person has a sense of purpose and community,” he said. “We need to build a world where we care just as much as anyone — a person in India or China or in Mexico or in Nigeria — as we care about a person right here in Chicago,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. That’s when we are going to achieve our greatest opportunities and build the world that we all want for generations to come.”
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, said Mr. Zuckerberg has had an influence on the immigration debate but the public is on the other side.
“There is no shortage of billionaires or rich and powerful people arguing for amnesty and increasing the legal immigration numbers,” he said. “The bottom line is all of these people have found it very difficult to get what they want on immigration because such a large fraction of the country disagrees with them.”
Public polling regularly shows the vast majority of voters either want legal immigration to stay the same or be cut — not increase as many major business leaders are advocating.
Mr. Zuckerberg last year also faced complaints that Facebook was censoring conservatives in its news feed feature. A company review concluded that rogue employees may have shown bias but there was no systematic effort to shortchange the right.
During the flap, Mr. Zuckerberg met with conservative leaders to hear their complaints and make his own case to them.
Mr. Zuckerberg also may face a challenge from major newspapers, which announced this week that they will try to band together to fight the dominance of Facebook and Google in the digital ad market.
Forbes rates Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal fortune at $64 billion and said he has vowed to give away most of his wealth over his lifetime.
Mr. Camarota said Mr. Trump’s election — on which he spent half of what the Clinton campaign invested — was a reminder that money isn’t everything in politics.
“On the idea of a listening tour, maybe he should try and get an alternative perspective on immigration,” Mr. Camarota said. “I would guess that he doesn’t hear much from people who disagree with him on an issue like immigration. If I were to give him any advice, I’d say maybe he should talk to some of them.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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