MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - Like geek wannabes crashing a hackerfest, presidential candidates in pressed suits have been descending on the trendy campus of the Internet search giant Google Inc., where gray hair is rare and T-shirts and blue jeans are standard business attire.
"It's a straightforward calculation," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of public policy. "If the candidates come to Google, they associate themselves with Silicon Valley innovation."
Silicon Valley, nerve center of the technology industry, has never been known as a political hotbed. People here talk more about Apple's iPhone than about White House policy. But in an election year dominated by war and a slumping economy, with races still undecided in both parties, many are paying closer attention to the campaign.
And candidates are paying closer attention to the Valley. No fewer than eight, including Republicans John McCain and Ron Paul and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have made their pilgrimages to the Googleplex to court leading-edge innovators, show off their knowledge of high-tech issues and, in off-campus fund-raisers, tap the largess of stock option millionaires.
A total of twenty-four states will vote tomorrow, in the closest thing yet to a national primary, but delegate-rich California will be the largest prize, with 441 delegates on the Democratic side and 173 on the Republican.
And for the first time in the memory of many here, the party nominations won't be a foregone conclusion when citizens cast their ballots. California matters this year in a way it hasn't in the past, when Golden State residents voted in June and were most likely to view the candidates in television coverage beamed from far-away states.
"People have gotten used to California being the ATM for presidential politics," said Kam Kuwata, a Democratic consultant in Southern California, referring to the frequent visits of candidates filling their war chests at Silicon Valley or Hollywood fund-raisers - visits typically devoid of the kind of retail campaigning seen in much smaller, early voting states like Iowa or New Hampshire. "People here don't expect to see candidates up close and personal," he said.
But in the runup to California's primary this year, the candidates have been showing up more frequently, making public appearances across the state. Here in the Valley, they've promised to reform the patent system to fuel innovation, improve science education, and extend tax credits for research - music to the tech crowd.
There have also been sightings of grass-roots activists, an uncommon species in the Valley. Kevin Ball recently quit his job at a high-performance computing start-up and walked into a newly opened office wedged between a laundromat and a Hawaiian barbecue joint in Palo Alto to volunteer for Barack Obama's campaign.
On a rainy January morning, the lanky 26-year-old, who described himself as apolitical for most of his life, was on the phone with Obama supporters. He was surrounded by half a dozen other volunteers, students from as far away as San Jose and Santa Cruz. "I had some spare time," Ball said. "I'd been living in a bubble. The problems with Iraq, the economy, and housing have got people engaged."
Fighting a pronounced libertarian streak and a tendency to dismiss the Washington political class as technologically clueless, Silicon Valley leaders are working to put their issues front and center.
"The Valley organizes politically around high-tech issues," said Betsy Mullins, vice president for government affairs at TechNet, a national public policy group that got its start in Silicon Valley. "This year there's a great opportunity to have more of an impact, to educate the candidates, and to raise awareness of technology issues."
Mullins, for instance, cited the need to raise the cap on work visas that let US technology companies hire highly skilled foreigners. The cap is 65,000 for the 2008 fiscal year, but the industry wants it much higher. "We bring people into the country on student visas, we train them, and then we send them home to compete against us," she said.
By hosting the candidates and engaging in dialogue on issues, newly powerful companies like Google are also hoping to avoid the mistakes of Microsoft Corp., the dominant US technology player of the 1990s. Microsoft executives were openly contemptuous of federal officials before they were hit by a Justice Department antitrust suit that distracted the company for years.
Other companies are promoting issues such as cybersecurity measures to stop identity theft or incentives to reduce energy consumption in data centers. In most cases, their pitch to candidates is couched in terms of helping the economy expand.
"People out here are capitalists," explained Adam Rak, senior director of public affairs for Symantec Corp., a security software company in Cupertino. "They're concerned about promoting the growth and competitiveness of our industries."
While Obama has raised nearly $4 million in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley, and Clinton almost $3.5 million, the most of any contenders, there is no consensus candidate among the Valley elite. Meg Whitman, who is stepping down as eBay Inc.'s chief executive in March, amid rumors she'll run for governor of California, is backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, with whom she worked at the management consulting firm Bain & Co. Symantec's chief executive, John Thompson, is supporting Obama.
Cisco Inc. chief executive John Chambers, who once worked for Wang Laboratories in Massachusetts, has lined up behind McCain, as has Carly Fiorina, the former chief of Hewlett-Packard Co. John Doerr, venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Menlo Park firm that backed companies like Google and Netscape Communications Corp., is in the Clinton camp.
Pretending to be a technologist isn't always advisable here, but Obama gave a convincing answer on his visit to the Googleplex in November when he was asked by chief executive Eric Schmidt about "the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers," a problem in computer coding. (Obama apparently had been given the question in advance and was told it stumped McCain on his visit to Google.)
Without missing a beat, Obama said, correctly, "I think the bubble sort would be the wrong way to go." Then he smiled.
"C'mon, who told him that?" Schmidt asked.
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misnamed the senior director of public affairs for Symantec Corp. He is Adam Rak.