It's not even 6 o'clock on a weeknight, but the club already is packed. In one corner, there's Peg, a fresh-faced elementary school principal who looks like she stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue. Greg and Mike, buddies who founded a snowboarding company, are in the middle of the room huddled over some beers. And Michelle, who works for a computer parts company, is leaning along the back wall, her blue toenails and matching glitter flip-flops sparkling in the dim light.
The scene in the converted warehouse is reminiscent of the dot-com days when the city's beautiful twenty- and thirtysomethings gathered regularly to schmooze over drinks. But this party isn't about venture capital, stock options and IPOs. It's about politics.
The event is a fundraiser/pep rally of sorts for MoveOn.org, the Internet-based grass-roots group that has become famous for its harsh anti-Bush TV advertisements, the millions of dollars it has taken from Democratic billionaire George Soros and for being able to mobilize tens of thousands with a click of the keyboard.
As the election season reaches its peak, Silicon Valley is using its technical know-how and money to try to change politics in the same way it reinvented commerce -- by harnessing the Internet's ability to take advantage of and grow social networks from the bottom up.
The founders of dot-com hit HotOrNot, which allows users to rate strangers' looks on a scale of one to 10, last month launched the nonpartisan VoteOrNot, a voter registration site that is running a $100,000 sweepstakes to entice newcomers (contestants don't have to actually register to vote to be eligible). Slashdot, a Web site that bills itself as offering "news for nerds," for the first time has put together a politics section to encourage discussion of tech-tinged campaign issues. Bay Area Dems, "BAD," was founded on the dot-com philosophy of not dismissing even the smallest players because they may become the next new thing. Their meet-and-greets, which concentrate on small donors, have drawn some prominent politicians.
Political consultants have spent countless hours pondering, dissecting and analyzing strategies to capture younger voters but for these organizations the secret is obvious. It's about making politics cool. The 2000 election marked one of the most dismal turnouts by young voters ages 18 to 29, but studies released over the past few months by the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center and MTV suggest a different trend this year. The young are projected to come out in unusually large numbers -- enough to swing a close election, though that's no certainty. In the last election, polls show that young voters were split down the middle in their support of Republicans and Democrats.
In many parts of the country, house parties, rock concerts and other social events sponsored by techie political groups are becoming the place for the young and hip to mix and mingle and -- oh yes -- support their political causes. Besides, as the MoveOn invitation noted, the party was a "fine way to meet cute guys and girls of your political persuasion."
Only a handful of the more than 150 people at the MoveOn party consider themselves activists. The rest are political neophytes. They paid a $25 cover charge at the door that will go to support MoveOn's efforts in swing states. By the end of the night, the organization had raised more than $3,000.
For some of the Democratic-minded at the MoveOn party, it's easy to articulate why they came. A founder of an environmental group says he's concerned about what he says is the current administration's lack of interest in doing anything about global warming. A doctor is upset that the president balked on a world health initiative that would have urged people to cut down on sugar intake.
A great many are upset about the war in Iraq. It is young men and women their age who comprise the bulk of the soldiers fighting there, they say.
Others have a harder time explaining why they are here.
Greg Kronko, 30, who travels often, said he's found that many of his friends from other countries have become hostile against Americans because of U.S. foreign policy. He said when he heard about MoveOn from a friend he got "a feeling" that supporting the organization was the right thing to do. Evan Combs, a 24-year-old paralegal, said that for the first time this year he has been actively following the campaign and donating money, some $50, to the Democratic campaign.
"It's been thrown around that this is the most important election of our time," Combs said. "You feel like it's really important to get involved."
Back in 2000, when the last presidential election took place, dot-com mania was in full swing and the worlds of Washington and Silicon Valley intersected like never before. The courtship then was mostly about money. The high-tech millionaires had it. The politicians wanted it. Today the relationship is more difficult to define. Many former techies, armed with the same gung-ho, change-the-world attitude they had several years ago, are coming up with creative experiments to try to improve on the political process.
Northern California natives James Hong, 31, and Jim Young, 31, said they were inspired to create the nonpartisan VoteOrNot site after they read James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds," which theorizes that a group of people is wiser than an elite few. The pair reasoned that the more people get out and vote, the more diverse the pool will be and the greater the chance that America will get "the correct answer" when it elects a president, Hong said.
His newest site is based on the notion that registration efforts will be more effective if friends rather than strangers on billboards or on TV ads remind people to vote. He said he himself got Young to register.
"It's not that we are apathetic. It's that we're lazy," Hong said about younger voters.
They used $200,000 of earnings from HotOrNot site, which has become a successful online dating site for people in the 18 to 24 age range, to fund the sweepstakes. One person will win $100,000 and the friend who referred him or her to the site will get the other $100,000. Since the site went up over Labor Day weekend, more than 100,000 people have signed up. Members are directed to another site to register to vote.
Slashdot creator and president Rob Malda, 28, said readers of the tech news Web site, roughly 500,000 a day, many of them 22- to 28-year-old men, have long requested a politics section. Topics vary from the serious to the whimsical. One day readers debated the state of civil liberties; another, a study that shows a correlation between the outcome of Washington Redskins games and the fate of the presidential election.
"People often think that Slashdot tends to be liberal or libertarian, but I'm continuously surprised that we have people with all opinions," said Malda, adding that he personally voted "not Bush" during the last election and will vote "not Bush" this election.
The Bay Area Dems formed early this year in an effort to change a democratic process they regard as "increasingly elitist," according to Andy Rappaport, a venture capitalist who is on the board of directors for the organization. The group, has attracted 2,000 to its events, hopes to get younger and less wealthy citizens involved. Their monthly mixers, for which participants are asked to donate as little as $75 to attend, have attracted the likes of House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
"Unlike other organizations where the goal of activities is to take money . . . our goal has been to give people opportunities to participate directly in the democratic process," said Wade Randlett, chief executive of Dashboard Technology, a Web products firm in San Francisco.
MoveOn is by far the largest political group to emerge from Northern California's tech scene. Founded in 1998, it is the brainchild of Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, software entrepreneurs who invented a screen saver featuring a flying toaster that mesmerized early Microsoft Windows users. MoveOn now claims more than 2.8 million members, up from 1.7 in January. With only a handful of paid staffers, the Berkeley-based organization depends on a diverse group of volunteers who stay in touch through the Internet.
For years it focused on mobilizing people online. There were electronic petitions, coordinated e-mail mailings and webcasts. This campaign season, MoveOn has concentrated on organizing real-world social events -- rock concert benefits, candlelight vigils for the fallen troops in Iraq, and parties at thousands of homes to watch Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." MoveOn staffers have been able to put together the events simply by e-mailing volunteers of a date and theme and allowing them to organize themselves.
The warehouse party was one of these get-togethers. Held in the trendy South of Market area, the playground of the dot-commers in 1999, it was convened on the night of the presidential debate in Florida. It was the second such event organized by David Hothschild and Adam Browning, both 33, who work at a nonprofit that promotes solar energy, and some of their friends. Earlier last month, they had hosted a happy hour get-together at 111 Minna, a gallery/bar/nightclub. They previewed MoveOn's newest ads and held an auction to raise money for the organization. Among the items up for bidding were CDs, DVDs, a palm reading, a guided kayak tour, a date with a young and single male MoveOn staffer, and lots of soup. The young woman who donated the soup said she didn't have much money but wanted to help; she offered to bring over a freshly made pot once a month for the next three months. The group raised $8,000 that night.
"These events are for people who don't track politics as a sport on a day-to-day level but are really concerned about the direction of the country right now and want to do something about it," Browning said.
Hothschild's and Browning's second party was more about socializing than fundraising. Organizers hand out name tags that said things like "Hello my name is . . ." or "One reason for voting Bush out of office is . . ."
During the debate, some sat quietly at the tables, eating pizza, drinking beers and cosmopolitans, while others cheered and jeered at various comments. After it ended, the crowd broke into smaller cliques like a regular night at the bar. The conversations shifted quickly: the movie "Hero," regional housing prices, dating woes, the upcoming ski season. It wasn't long before the topic turned back to Silicon Valley investing.