In a presidential campaign where candidates are tripping over one another to present as hip to the culture and needs of Silicon Valley, embracing tech buzzwords and marveling at the possibilities of the sharing economy, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has gone perhaps the furthest, announcing he has opened a campaign office inside a startup hub.
The place he chose, a shared workspace called StartupHouse in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco, has the perfect vibe. It’s full of coders and nascent entrepreneurs designing apps and exchanging ideas in a gritty open space with graffiti on the walls and an inspiration nook complete with sofas and a communal acoustic guitar.
The only thing missing on a recent visit was any sign of Paul’s campaign.
His staff had not been by in days. In fact, they don’t really work there at all. The Paul campaign has used the space just a few times.
“We’ve used this location to make some great connections with Silicon Valley and the tech community, and have also utilized it for larger events such as our 24-hour hack-a-thon,” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor wrote in an email. “I’m sure we’ll have more events there in the near future.”
Many in Silicon Valley, though, feel treated as a mere campaign prop for Paul and every other contender traveling through. The candidates talk about tech all the time, but in the offices of startups and the boardrooms of venture capital firms, there is little excitement about the crop of politicians whose outreach tends to involve clumsy efforts to speak the language of innovation followed by an appeal for campaign checks.
“They are completely out of touch,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and academic whom campaigns often consult for advice. “I talk to these candidates all the time. They are clueless about what Silicon Valley needs.… A lot of them are trying to connect here. None of them is succeeding. No one is even close.”
Candidates are stumbling as the needs of the innovation economy run in conflict with those of the more established industries these politicians have been aligned with for years. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a longtime ally of labor, found herself in perilous territory when she tried to square its agenda with the explosion of contractor-based companies spawning from Silicon Valley, such as Uber.
Republicans tend to be cozy with cable and telephone companies and have been unable to reconcile that with Silicon Valley’s evangelical devotion to net neutrality, or a ban on such companies creating Internet fast lanes for firms that pay more. And while GOP calls to ease regulatory burdens on innovators have appeal, Republicans' generally hard line on immigration is a big loser with tech.
The tech money flowing into campaigns -- and to be sure, there is a lot -- tends to be from large, established firms like HP and Google that handle politics like old-economy companies, showering money and lobbyists on both political parties, or from titan venture capitalists and innovators who have pet causes. Silicon Valley’s next generation, which includes the techies toiling away at StartupHouse during a recent visit, have yet to be inspired.
“These are people looking for big answers to big questions, not a tax credit,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine, an advocacy group for startups. “We have not seen anything like that.”
The lackluster job that candidates are doing to stir interest throughout Silicon Valley is alarming to groups like Engine at a time when the federal government has big plans for meddling in the business of innovation. Regulators are not only contemplating new rules for firms like Uber, but are also getting ahead of marketplace sea changes being hatched in Silicon Valley in such areas as the Internet of Things, driverless cars and drones.
Engine will try to get candidates to focus on such issues by going to the place campaign promises are now being made: Iowa. It is organizing a candidate forum there. Lincoln Labs, a tech advocacy group that favors limited government, will this month unveil a white paper to school presidential candidates on issues of innovation, followed by a series of events in Silicon Valley aimed at recruiting innovators to advocate for the agenda.
“I have yet to see a candidate come to Silicon Valley to do a listening tour,” said Derek Khanna, a consultant to Lincoln Labs. “They do it all the time in Iowa. They know a lot about corn, yet they know very little about entrepreneurship.”
Wadhwa is more blunt: “They have no clue what innovation is.”
Innovators acknowledge they share some of the blame. The tech industry has a long history of keeping Washington at arm’s length. The lack of engagement haunted some of the bigger companies, like Microsoft, early on when they became the target of major antitrust and other government investigations and lacked influential allies to come to their defense. That’s changed for such companies, which are among the top spenders in the country on politics and lobbying.
But an aversion to Washington remains the rule among emerging firms, where Silicon Valley’s most transformative work tends to happen.
“The valley has this view that if you don’t believe in it, Washington doesn’t exist,” said Larry Downes, a Berkeley-based innovation scholar with the Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy.
“It is no longer a workable strategy.… Trade associations and lobbyists for established industries are demanding protection from these new market entrants. They are running to regulators to try to slow or stop anything that will disrupt their business. There is a lot of risk for Silicon Valley… Nobody in Washington is talking about it. Nobody out here is talking about it.”