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Tech Industry

Could Karl Rove be right about tech?

CNET's Charles Cooper says recent comments by President Bush's adviser contradict the reality that governs Silicon Valley.

In an illuminating interview published in the June 4 issue of The New Yorker, White House political aide Karl Rove suggested that a nexus exists between the spread of technology and a centrist-conservative outlook on the world.

"There are two or three societal trends that are driving us in an increasingly deep center-right posture," Rove told the magazine. "One of them is the power of the computer chip. Do you know how many people's principal source of income is eBay? Seven hundred thousand."

Rove's point being that the proliferation of technology puts increasing numbers of people in charge of how they make a living.

He continues: "It's given people a greater chance to run their own business, become a sole proprietor or an entrepreneur. As a result, it has made us more market-oriented, and that equals making you more center-right in your politics."

If Rove's arithmetic is correct, the Republican Party will benefit from a cohort of new supporters to augment the GOP's traditional support from the Christian right and pro-business interests. Sounds convincing on the surface, but will it necessarily work out in so linear a fashion?

When it comes to aligning the work habits of Americans with their political preferences, prognosticators have a spotty track record.

When it comes to aligning the work habits of Americans with their political preferences, prognosticators have a spotty track record. So it's worth examining whether people liberated by technology to become self-employed would necessarily identify with "The Man." To be sure, they'll likely be more antiregulation up to a point. But many of these same folks are going to wind up competing against the likes of Wal-Mart.

One clue might be to examine past links between high-tech employment and political contributions.

So far, however, the data are inconclusive. In four of the five election cycles between 1990 and 2000, Republicans raised more money than Democrats from individuals and political action committees in the computer industry.

That also was the decade when the commercial Internet got started.

An emerging Republican majority? False start. Turns out Democrats took in more money from tech interests during three of the four subsequent election cycles, the period that coincided with the Internet's rapid expansion. It's a slight shift, to be sure, but noticeable.

Just to blur the picture further, I went back and compared registration rolls in the Northern California region, which includes most of what's commonly referred to as Silicon Valley.

In 2000, 46.3 percent of Santa Clara, Calif.'s voters registered as Democrats compared with 31.5 percent as Republicans. As of this year, the numbers remain as tilted in favor of the Democrats at 45.2 percent, compared with 27.2 percent for Republicans. Of course, that doesn't mean they all voted according to party affiliation. Still, it doesn't suggest a big defection--at least not yet.

Another data point comes from my colleague's recent analysis of political contributions for the first quarter of 2007. Only one employee at Google appears to have given money to either of the two leading Republican candidates, but 35 gave money to Democrats.

One political strategist who believes Rove is onto something is Dan Schnur, a lecturer in political science at University of California at Berkeley and a veteran Republican adviser. Schnur worked as the media head for former Gov. Pete Wilson and ran John McCain's communications during the Arizona senator's losing primary run in 2000.

"I do (think he has a point)," Schnur says. "If nothing else, Rove has seen the deterioration of organized labor as an organized political force and that's attributable to the rise of the entrepreneurial culture. The strength of his argument is that the Internet has created a much larger class of entrepreneurs who tend to vote for free-market economic policies. The angle in question is how many of those same voters will vote Republican on social issues as well."

Schnur's last point hits the nail on the head. Let's recall that the success of the New Democrats under Clinton and Gore was their belief that social and cultural questions would be more important to voters than economic ones (notwithstanding the "It's the economy, stupid" tagline).

I think that's equally true--for both political parties--these days. Silicon Valley never became an overly strident "red" or "blue" place to live and work. Every now and then, the region's deep undercurrent of libertarianism bubbles to the surface to confound the pundit predictions.

Karl Rove included.