Despite Web success, Obama loses Silicon Valley

Having a lot of Facebook followers meant little for votes.

Published February 7, 2008 7:16PM (EST)'s Declan McCullagh points to an interesting bit of Super Tuesday data: Barack Obama lost Silicon Valley to Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps this doesn't surprise you -- after all, Obama lost California to Clinton -- but as McCullagh notes, Obama did worse in the Valley than he did statewide, which is surprising considering the Illinois senator's undeniable prowess online.

Statewide, Clinton beat Obama by 9.7 points, 52.0 percent to Obama's 42.3 percent. But in Santa Clara county, home to the biggest tech companies in the country, Clinton got 54.8 percent and Obama got 39.3 percent -- a 15.5 point margin.

There may be many reasons for this. People in the Valley just aren't very liberal, you might say, so Obama -- whom exit polls suggest was the choice of liberals -- may not have appealed to them.

On the other hand, techies are a notoriously independent, well-educated bunch -- they're Obama's base. California's non-partisan voters weren't allowed to vote in the Republican primary, but they were allowed to vote for Democrats.

And as McCullagh notes, employees at Google, Yahoo and other tech companies gave more money to Obama than to Clinton (he got $139,500 from Googlers, who gave only $61,400 to Clinton). Obama was also endorsed by two Silicon Valley Congresswomen, Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo.

There is no doubt, too, which candidate won the hearts and minds of SiliValley types. Many of the candidates were invited to speak to Googlers, but only Obama said anything to appeal to them. When CEO Eric Schmidt asked Obama a software engineering question during a session at the company's Mountain View campus -- "What is the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers?" -- the senator replied with a joke only Googlers would get: "The bubble sort would be the wrong way to go," he said.

And look at the Internets! Obama's got, by far, the most followers on Facebook and the savviest YouTubers. Everyone online who's not supporting Ron Paul seems to be for him.

But looking at the Internets is the problem. The Web tells us little about what's going on in the real world. McCullough credits Clinton's win to a good ground operation; Obama does well online, he says, because clicking buttons is easier than going to vote.

That's probably right. More fundamentally, though, maybe it's time to start thinking about the Internet as a precious, blessed alien culture completely foreign to everyplace else, kind of like Japan. Indeed, this is old news: Howard Dean's explosion four years ago pretty much proved that what happens online stays online.

Barack Obama, obviously, is not Dean or Paul; he's got real-world support, and he knows how to win campaigns. But if Facebook didn't matter to his campaign in the most techy place on the planet, it'd be wise not to keep looking to online popularity as a prediction of his prospects offline.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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2008 Elections