Piercing a Silicon Valley stereotype

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh finds that generalizations about latte-sipping, tofu-snacking liberals lead to a misleading reading of the political map.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
A minor mystery is afoot in Silicon Valley, where tech workers who claim to adore Democratic politicians are quietly backing other candidates.

Conventional wisdom holds that area denizens are latte-sipping, tofu-snacking liberals as likely to vote for someone like Newt Gingrich as they are to wear mink. This is, after all, the region that birthed the Burning Man festival, celebrated an illegal gay marriage last week, and whose political beliefs presumably would give Pat Robertson a case of the heebie-jeebies.

There is some truth to that. In November's race for San Francisco mayor, for instance, the Republican candidate garnered 4 percent the votes of the Democratic and Green candidates. Registered Democrats and Greens in Berkeley outnumber Republicans by over 10 to 1, according to the California secretary of state. In Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose, the divide is not as stunning, but the ratio remains about two registered Democrats for every Republican.

But those numbers don't come close to telling the real story.

Sift through the heaps of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and you'll find that people who work for technology firms actually disliked Al Gore even more than they disliked George W. Bush.

For each election cycle since 1998, Microsoft employees have favored the Bushes and Doles over the Clintons and Gores.
In the current electoral season, employees of Intel and Cisco who donated to political campaigns prefer Republicans over Democrats. What's more, for each election cycle since 1998, Microsoft employees have favored the Bushes and Doles over the Clintons and Gores. (Though in 2004, at least, the Redmond crowd is giving equally to both major parties.)

To be sure, John Kerry managed to snag $900,000 at one event last spring in San Francisco. And Microsoft employees anted up $46,113 to become the third-largest group of donors to Howard Dean, after the University of California and Time Warner. But it was Bush who raised $4 million at a fundraiser at the Los Altos Hills, Calif., home of Cisco CEO John Chambers.

This is the polar opposite of the Hollywood types--at the other end of California--who have never broken off their love affair with the Democratic Party. Records indicate that employees of Viacom, Walt Disney and Vivendi Universal consistently write checks to Democrats over Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

The difference is even more marked when you look at cash from corporate political action committees, or PACs. (Any company is permitted to set up a PAC and accept employee contributions as long as it follows certain rules, such as maintaining separate bank accounts and abiding by spending limits of $5,000 to a candidate and $15,000 to a national party committee.)

Internet and computer-related PACs have given an average of 60 percent of their money to Republicans over the last four elections, and only 40 percent to Democratic candidates. That list includes eBay, EDS, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, Texas Instruments, VeriSign and Yahoo. Telecommunications and electronics PACs tend to be even more aggressively Republican.

Among Republican-friendly tech firms, Intel stands out as one of the party's most loyal allies. Over the past four elections, its PAC handed out a total $133,992 to Democrats and $475,231 to Republicans.

Closeted Republicans?
These totals raise an obvious question: Why would people who work in the Bay Area publicly identify themselves with the Democratic or Green parties but quietly support Republicans?

Another explanation is that people who work in the technology field are what political wonks like to call post-partisan: They're not truly allied with either major party.
One possibility is that political check-writers may be disproportionately Republican. Or perhaps voter registrations skew toward Democrats because tech workers are less inclined to register to vote than, say, union members.

Maybe. But Silicon Valley types also seem to be a little sheepish about openly supporting Republican politicians.

"They're in the closet," says Sonia Arrison, an analyst at the free-market Pacific Research Institute who's also the communications chair for Lead21, a group of Silicon Valley Republicans.

"Lead21 was started because a number of people in the tech community who were Republican or Republican-leaning, more libertarian, felt they couldn't express themselves publicly," Arrison says. "In some ways this is a support group for free-market types in the Valley who often feel smothered by all the leftist rhetoric."

Another explanation is that people who work in the technology field are what political wonks like to call post-partisan: They're not truly allied with either major party. Instead, they're closer to what Republican strategist Grover Norquist famously dubbed the "leave us alone" coalition, but without his overtones of social conservativism.

In classic swing-voter style, they see Republicans as too rigid on social issues and Democrats as too loose on fiscal ones. They're pro-choice but, with an eye to the technology industry's global market, pro-free trade as well.

That suggests today's support for the Republican Party may be broad but not deep. If the GOP continues to run up a tab through widening deficits, military adventurism, and the tax-and-spend tactics beloved of liberal politicians, then who knows? Its friends in Silicon Valley may turn around and head right back into their closets.