SAN FRANCISCO — Early in the 2008 presidential race, the Bay Area swooned over Barack Obama. In his first official trip here, the relatively unknown candidate was greeted by shouts of “Mr. President!” Technology executives feted him at their mansions. Local papers described the buzz as “deafening.” Obama would go on to raise more than $38 million in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Fast-forward eight years: As Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to enter the 2016 presidential campaign as an overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, she is viewed here more as respected establishment than exciting start-up. She is not seen as the kind of transformational candidate that Obama was, particularly within the technology community.
“I don’t hear a lot of, ‘Oh, boy, Hillary is going to fix all these problems we have as a country,’ ” said Jim Greer, founder of Kongregate, a Web and mobile gaming platform. “I don’t think there’s a Silicon Valley candidate in this race yet.”
Even so, Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have been busy cultivating personal relationships with many of tech’s boldface names. She will visit Silicon Valley on Tuesday for a paid appearance at Lead On, the Watermark women’s leadership conference in Santa Clara where tickets sell for $245 each.
“I’ve never seen tickets fly out the door like this,” said Watermark chief executive Marlene Williamson. “People are begging me, ‘Can I get the Hillary tickets?’ ”
For Clinton, the Bay Area represents perhaps her biggest opportunity to expand her fundraising base from 2008, when she raised $6.2 million from the affluent counties of San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama brought in $9.8 million from donors in those counties during the same time period.
In the years since, Silicon Valley has experienced explosive growth in wealth, minting scores of new millionaires and billionaires who could be tapped for large donations to Clinton’s campaign and an alliance of independent groups poised to back her bid.
“The circle of Silicon Valley donors has expanded at the pace of Moore’s Law — with each day, new ideas translating into new businesses and in turn generating new individuals capable of being donor whales,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in the Bay Area who advises billionaire Tom Steyer and other major donors. These individuals, he said, “have money, ideas and time, and see this election as an election where they want to make a difference.”
To win them over, however, Clinton will have to navigate a thorny issue that has soured the relationship between Obama and many longtime Silicon Valley allies: his administration’s national security surveillance practices. Tech leaders who have taken new measures to make it more difficult for the government to track their customers will be watching closely to see how Clinton addresses the topic.
“Today, the litmus test is, ‘Where are you on your own government spying and hacking American companies?’ ” said Wade Randlett, a top Democratic fundraiser in the Bay Area. “If you can’t say without any caveats, commas, equivocations, walk-backs that the answer is no, then you’re just not going to get anywhere out here.”
There is also a resistance to Clinton among a younger generation of tech gurus who helped organize support for Obama in his two White House runs. Some have started a group called “Tech for Warren” to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race, despite the Massachusetts Democrat’s insistence that she is not running.
One of the group’s organizers is Sean Knox, an engineer who said he was so inspired by Obama in 2008 that he joined his campaign as a volunteer Bay Area data director.
“Elizabeth Warren generates that same spark,” Knox said. “She really speaks truth to power, and I don’t see that with anyone else. I don’t get that same kind of spark with Hillary.”
Another organizer, Catherine Bracy, who directed an Obama campaign tech office here, said that, in contrast to Clinton, Warren “is not satisfied with the status quo. When she sees things that could or should be working better, she calls them out and isn’t afraid to say what’s true, even if it’s not convenient. That’s a spirit that is really appealing to people who are building companies.”
Still, without Warren in the race, Clinton faces no serious competition for major Democratic donors. “It’s like 99.9 percent to 0.1 percent on the primary side for Hillary. It’s a complete blowout,” said Randlett, who sits on the national finance committee of Ready for Hillary, a super PAC that has been mobilizing grass-roots support for her likely bid.
Asked to describe Clinton’s base, Randlett said: “Out here, middle-aged women are the equivalent of the 22-year-olds in 2007. They are as crazy for Hillary as the kids were for Barack.”
Lorraine Hariton, a technology executive here who served under Clinton as the State Department’s special representative for commercial and business affairs, said: “Hillary Clinton is a rock star here. The women of the valley — she gets us.”
Venture capitalist Steve Westly, a former California state controller, served as Obama’s state campaign co-chairman in 2008 and has been helping lay the groundwork for Clinton in 2016. He said her support here is growing, in part because she has done a number of personal meetings with key Silicon Valley leaders since leaving the State Department two years ago.
“Everyone I know perceives her to be very bright and highly experienced,” Westly said, citing her support for science research and the global economy.
Clinton is not a perfect fit with Silicon Valley culture. The area has a libertarian-populist streak that can be traced to the software programmers who swapped code and built computers in the mid-1970s, said Margaret O’Mara, a leading Silicon Valley historian at the University of Washington.
“People saw the computer and creating hardware and software as a tool of liberation from big government and from big business, this countercultural impulse to break free from old ways of doing things,” O’Mara said. “Someone like Elizabeth Warren matches the valley’s excitement about the new and the disruptive.”
That has also given an opening to Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been aggressively cultivating a base of libertarian-leaning technologists and venture capitalists.
Meanwhile, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has impressed some technology executives in private meetings, and his political advisers have been quietly consulting dot-com firms for Bush’s eventual campaign.
Greer said that many technology entrepreneurs like himself are hunting for a candidate who captures the valley’s unconventional spirit.
“I build systems and I look at our government right now and I see a system that’s really broken, in lots of ways,” he said. “Right now, that’s what would get me enthusiastic — someone I think who is going to fix a broken system. Hillary is a smart, capable candidate, but it is too soon to say whether she has the inclination to try to do that, and whether she could if she tried.”
Gold reported from Washington.