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TechCrunch's Mike Arrington shows his primary colors

June 5, 2008 |  2:01 pm

TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington

We knew he was an animal, Silicon Valley's wild man. But a political animal?

TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington is the undisputed kingmaker of Silicon Valley Internet start-ups. Entrepreneurs who get a favorable review on his website are nearly guaranteed venture capital funding.

Recently, Arrington decided to turn his considerable clout into a different kind of currency. He thrust Silicon Valley onto the national political scene in December when he took the unusual step of mounting a campaign of his own: a tech president primary. His powerful base of plugged-in techies helped him land interviews with Barack Obama, John McCain and other presidential candidates. Then he pushed the contenders to articulate something they don't often discuss: their technology policies.

Arrington also claims the distinction of predicting the presumptive nominees from both parties back in January when the outcome was far from certain.

Republican strategist Dan Schnur says Arrington was savvy in two ways: He got to the candidates early, when they had more incentive to speak with him, and he leveraged the influence of his readers.

"Anybody in the world can say, 'I have a blog, hey, come talk to me.' But Mike figured out a way to make sure the campaigns understood they weren't just talking to him, they were talking to a very influential audience of tech leaders," Schnur said. "This is the first election in history in which voters can talk back to the candidates. Mike was able to parlay that into not just a lot of voter attention but a lot of candidate attention as well."

Of course, Silicon Valley has long represented the land of opportunity for politicians. Its citizens have deep pockets, and the technology it produces ...

... increasingly transforms the way political battles are waged. But the region's ability to engage Washington in a meaningful dialog on the issues important to Silicon Valley has been hit or miss -- at best -- despite a dramatic increase in recent years of political lobbying.

"The valley is quickly maturing and evolving in recognizing, from a business perspective, that it needs to have a much bigger, more effective voice in Washington, D.C.," Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said. "TechCrunch got the candidates to engage about technology policy at a level they haven't done before. In doing so, the valley is beginning to flex some of its political muscle."

Barack Obama, Mike Arrington's pick for presidentUC Berkeley political science professor Henry Brady says Arrington's political experiment is emblematic of the political "coming of age" of Silicon Valley.

"It had not yet dawned on the Silicon Valley community how absolutely important government is to its long-term aims and goals," Brady said. "The feeling was, 'We have our own world, our own government and our own approach, and we don't need to worry about those guys.' Increasingly they are realizing that they do have to worry about them."

Arrington says he began thinking about picking a "tech president" last summer with the encouragement of his new chief marketing officer, Sarah Ross. He was frustrated that none of the candidates seemed to know much about technology. He grew increasingly determined to get the candidates to weigh in on the information revolution, the epicenter of which frequently seems to be in Arrington's home in Atherton, Calif., where entrepreneurs stop in unannounced in search of write-ups and Silicon Valley big shots gather for late-night parties. Arrington says now is the time for techies to have a greater voice in politics as Facebook, YouTube and other Silicon Valley technologies shake up how candidates campaign.

So Arrington courted interviews with all of the presidential contenders to give them a platform to share their technology policies with the technology in-crowd. His pitch: The seminal issues in the technology world, such as network neutrality, may be boring, but they are vital to the nation's economy.

John McCain won Mike Arrington's endorsement as Republican nomineeSilicon Valley elder statesmen, who for years have lobbied to gain political clout in the nation's capitol, might want to take note: Arrington landed interviews with all of the candidates except Hillary Clinton, who plans to end her presidential bid by Saturday.

It was a fascinating political odyssey for Arrington. He praises former Republican candidate Mitt Romney for having the courage to go first, braving his questions and his readers' "crazy comments." He dings Democratic contender Dennis Kucinich for hanging up before delving into any of the issues.

Arrington ended each interview with the same question: Are you a Mac or PC user? Most were PC users, except McCain, who professed to being computer "illiterate." McCain's campaign later clarified that McCain knows how to use a computer and surrounds himself with tech savvy folks. The message: This is no Ted Stevens referring to the Internet as a "series of tubes."

"Frankly, I don’t give a damn if McCain ever turns on a computer or not," Arrington said. Besides, McCain totes an iPod loaded with his favorite Beach Boys and Roy Orbison tunes, Arrington pointed out.

In the populist tradition of Silicon Valley, Arrington encouraged TechCrunch readers to vote on the candidate they thought held the best positions on 10 key issues of concern to Silicon Valley, including net neutrality, the digital divide and visas for foreign-born workers. The TechCrunch poll reflected the youthanized nature of Silicon Valley: On the Democrat side of the aisle, 60% voted for Obama (a Facebook favorite, with company co-founder Chris Hughes serving as an online organizer for Obama's campaign) with John Edwards coming in second. On the Republican side of the aisle, Ron Paul claimed 73% of the votes with McCain coming in second.

Then, in January, Arrington took his own stand by endorsing one candidate from each party: Obama and McCain. And he offered his detailed reasoning why.

He pointed out that Obama in November released a position paper on technology issues and pledged to name a chief technology officer to steward the nation. (Showing off its own political clout, tech blog Venture Beat landed the exclusive on this plan). Two weeks later, Obama answered Arrington's questions on the issues in writing.

That exchange convinced Arrington that Obama had shown "real leadership and thoughtfulness on the issues." Those included Obama’s promise to make net neutrality a priority, his proposal for programs to increase technology education and access for kids, his desire to increase the number of H1-B visas, and his support of research into renewable energy sources and "realistic, market-based approach" to capping carbon emissions. Arrington also credited Obama with spending time vetting these issues with Silicon Valley leaders and addressing the need to replace disappearing blue-collar jobs with jobs in the high-tech sector.

"Obama has clearly not only captured the imagination of Silicon Valley, he really laid out the issues. He has a strong position on network neutrality, on mobile spectrum. He has pretty detailed policies on technical issues that most candidates don't want to touch," Arrington said. "He just really impressed me as getting the fact that this was an important part of our economy."

Obama not only got Arrington's endorsement, he "almost certainly" has Arrington's personal vote for imparting a sense of optimism about the future that mirrors the Silicon Valley zeitgeist. "I am a pretty conservative guy, but I am drinking the Obama Kool-Aid," he said.

Arrington said he had a harder time endorsing a Republican candidate because he felt each of their positions on technology was flawed. Even though Paul won the TechCrunch reader primary, Arrington said Paul's opposition to net neutrality, for example, disqualified him.

McCain, on the other hand, gave "real answers" and went on the record on every issue, Arrington said. "McCain was awesome," he said.

Though McCain is "standoffish" on net neutrality, mobile spectrum rules and the digital divide, and has voted against some bills to fund renewable energy research, Arrington blogged that he was swayed by McCain's willingness to address "inequities that arise from his hands-off policies on net neutrality and mobile allocations, which other Republican candidates refuse to do. And his positions on Internet taxes, H1-B visas, China/human rights violations and other issues are strongly pro-technology."

He also lauded McCain’s "pure leadership experience" and "pro-business leanings" as the elder statesmen in the crowd of presidential contenders.

Arrington was particularly moved when he ran into fellow honoree McCain at Time magazine's party for its picks for the world's 100 most influential people. McCain greeted Arrington with enthusiasm, exclaiming: "I love TechCrunch."  "It was a very special moment for me," Arrington said.

Arrington's political experiment caught the attention of Charlie Rose, who invited Arrington onto his television talk show to discuss his thoughts on the candidates and the issues. To the surprise of some, the national stage suited the typically brash Arrington, who is not always known for his composure or diplomacy. He astutely presented the issues and candidates with insight and sophistication.

In that moment, Arrington could bask in having achieved something rare in Silicon Valley: He got Washington to pay attention to Silicon Valley. And he says he's not done yet.

"We are going to be aggressively getting in front of the candidates again to follow up on the issues and to refine their positions," Arrington said.

That is precisely the leadership role that Silicon Valley should play on such major issues as education as the economy shifts from blue collar to high tech, said Lehane, the Democratic strategist. "At a time when the American dream is being challenged, Silicon Valley is our economic future," he said.

-- Jessica Guynn

Michael Arrington photo by courtesy of Brian Solis. Barack Obama photo by Don Petersen / Associated Press. John McCain photo by John Raoux / Associated Press.

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