News Column

GOP Slow to Embrace Social Media in Valley

Dec. 15, 2012

Josh Richman

Silicon Valley

Since President Barack Obama was re-elected last month, Republican strategists have publicly fretted about whether the GOP has lost Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and other key voting blocs of America's future.

Add another bloc to the list: young Silicon Valley professionals whose technological skills as campaign volunteers can provide a vital edge in elections.

Silicon Valley helped turn Obama's "Yes We Can" into "Yes We Code" this year. And as the campaigns' veils of secrecy have slowly lifted since the election, it has become clear Republican contender Mitt Romney's campaign was technologically outclassed, culminating in the spectacular Election Day meltdown of its get-out-the-vote program.

One huge problem for the Republicans: Not only is Silicon Valley overwhelmingly Democratic, but the values, beliefs and culture of the valley often seem incompatible with some of the current stances of the GOP.

"We all work on evidence-based reasoning, and that's much more of a Democratic mindset than a Republican mindset," said Johnvey Hwang, 34, a San Francisco software engineer who volunteered with the Obama campaign. "It's hard to side with a party that's still trying to reach out to their base of creationists."

Or denying the contribution of humans to climate change, or opposing embryonic stem cell research. The list goes on.

Veteran California GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, however, said the idea of a "Republican war on science" is just "hype."

"The problem is in some ways more fundamental. ... It has to do with a worldview," he said. "Technologists are often single, socially moderate-to-liberal, much more secular than the population as a whole, and those demographics are a problem for the Republican Party right now."

Catherine Bracy, who co-managed the "Tech4Obama" campaign field office in San Francisco -- a first-of-its-kind experiment that came up with a wide range of apps to make the campaign run smoother inside and out -- said it'll remain a problem for the GOP unless the party rethinks some of its core values.

"It's not so much 'liberal and conservative' as it is 'forward-looking and backward-looking.' Technologists by definition are building the future. ... It's just the way they see the world," she said. "They're not ideological by nature; it's 'How you get to the answer? What's the best way to the solution?' The problem with the Republican Party is not that they don't have technology; it's that they have bad ideas."

Romney attracted deep-pocketed Bay Area contributors and hired talented tech-heads -- and the GOP presidential nominee in 2016 surely will, too. But as Lennon and McCartney put it, money can't buy you Love.

Marc Love, that is.

"It used to be, here in California, that the only way we can affect national campaigns is to donate money, travel to battleground states or make phone calls," said Love, 32. "I've always wanted to find some way to contribute my technical skills to a campaign."

Love, a San Jose-to-San Francisco transplant, volunteered full time at the Tech4Obama office for about seven weeks in the spring as team leader for "Trip Planner," a Craigslist-like tool on Obama's website connecting volunteers with rides and rooms when they traveled to other states. Even after starting full time in June with San Francisco software developer Carbon Five, he kept coming when he could.

"We all have our day jobs, and we came evenings after work and weekends. It was in our interests to help Obama get elected ... and it was in our interests to do it as efficiently as possible," while hired contractors might take longer and inflate their bills, Love said.

For Democrats, finding volunteers like Love in Silicon Valley is easy. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3-to-1 in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, and they picked Obama over Romney by about the same ratio. And among workers at Silicon Valley's largest companies who gave money to either candidate, a whopping 85 percent of the total contributions went to Obama.

The region's money people think differently: Employees of the region's largest private-equity firms who contributed to one of the two candidates gave about 74 percent of their money to Romney -- and cash is any campaign's lifeblood.

"The beauty of technology is that you can buy it," said GOP campaign consultant Matt David. "In Silicon Valley, first they're innovators, but second they're entrepreneurs."

Still, David, who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012, acknowledged the GOP has fallen behind technologically.

"We haven't even deployed a lot of the technologies that Obama used in the 2008 campaign," he said.

That became evident on Election Day as Orca -- Romney's poll-monitoring program, meant to guide final get-out-the-vote efforts in battleground states -- failed, leaving volunteers across the nation blind as time ran out. Since then it has become clear that Obama's "nanotargeting" -- providing field volunteers with special scripts tailored specifically to each voter whose door they knocked on or phone they called, based on reams of electronic information gathered about each individual -- was far more sophisticated than Romney's ground game.

Hwang also worked on "Trip Planner" and later spent the race's final month in Florida, helping process data for that state's crucial get-out-the-vote effort.

"This was a great fit for me," Hwang said, praising the latitude he and his fellow volunteers had. "I'm a very startup kind of a person, so being able to jump in and build something without having to deal with a regular organization ... was very appealing."

Using the presidential campaign as a tech incubator matched the local ethos, said Matthew Douglass, of San Francisco, a Tech4Obama volunteer and vice president of Practice Fusion, a Web-based electronic health record app for doctors.

"We choose to live in the Bay Area ... because we want to help revolutionize certain industries or products or applications we see as insufficient," he said. "Why would we maintain the status quo in other areas of our lives such as our political beliefs?"



Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: (c) 2012 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)


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