Presidential candidates like to treat Silicon Valley like an ATM, simply a money machine to support their massive national campaign expenses. They tour company headquarters with stump speeches, praising the tech industry as an engine of growth, and hope to be showered with the discretionary riches of the Valley’s many multi-millionaire activists.
While Silicon Valley has money, so does Hollywood and Wall Street, each which gives generously to both parties. Silicon Valley’s true superpower is its engineering talent — and they are extraordinarily fickle about who they support.
In 2007, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had more money and establishment fans than any one of her opponents. Yet Obama beat her handily, thanks to a crack team of top Facebookers and Googlers who left their jobs to join his campaign. They took a pay cut and career detour to join something that inspired them more than anything Google or Facebook was building at the time.
For Obama, they built pioneering social media technologies that today have become a staple of modern campaigning. Whether Obama ended up fulfilling his promises is open to debate, but he had an extraordinarily high Silicon Valley IQ. His message of optimism and changing the political system inspired countless people to officially join the campaign or use their free time building cutting-edge tech.
“We lived off the Silicon Valley land,” one Obama campaign staffer told me, who was able to get countless of hours of engineering talent for absolutely free.
So, nearly 8 years after the heart of the tech industry overwhelmingly favored Barack Obama, his former contestant, Hillary Clinton, was back in Silicon Valley pitching her solutions. On stage yesterday, Clinton laid out bread-and-butter Democratic ideas of middle-class economics and more inclusive diversity.
“Wages no longer rise with productivity, while CEO pay keeps going up,” Clinton remarked on stage. “We have to figure out how to make this new economy work for everyone.”
While noble, this is not a message that will inspire the hyper-idealistic, world-changing engineers of technology’s top firms. Discreetly, many of Obama’s former tech leads tell me they have no interest in joining team Clinton. Obama was an inspiring figure to them, Clinton is not.
The ideas that enthrall tech circles are not the usual liberal topics. There is a coming robot job-apocalypse, and the Airbnbs and Ubers of the industry are exploring whether the sharing economy can support the middle class after their jobs are automated.
America’s school system is increasingly out of touch with the 21st century economy, and folks like LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman are calling for a radical overhaul of the credentialing process.
America faces crippling partisanship, and arguably tech’s most famous legal scholar, Larry Lessig, is trying to find a way to end money’s corruption on politics.
Clinton did not come to the Valley with a hint of the same optimism that helped Obama snag the Valley’s best talent. Nowhere did she offer interesting ideas, or even a sense that she wants to disrupt any of our institutions. So Clinton may get some money from the Silicon Valley rich. California will most likely swing in her favor.
But, if the 2016 campaign ends up being much tighter and she needs a technology edge, she is in trouble. One of her contenders, Republican Senator Rand Paul, is already opening up a shop in Silicon Valley; it’s not to tap rich people for money, but to build another crack engineering team.
She should not underestimate the ability of a campaign underdog and smart engineers to run a successful campaign. More importantly, if Clinton isn’t interested in innovative policies, I doubt many innovators will join her.