This week, California will be shining brightly in the 2008 presidential race.
That's because more big-name stars than ever (including Tom Hanks, George Clooney, producer Steven Spielberg, and monied moguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg) are expected to attend a celebrity-packed fundraiser for Barack Obama hosted by Oprah Winfrey at her southern California estate this Saturday.
Indeed, ever since the electoral megastate moved its primary up to Feb. 5 to gain more clout in the presidential nomination process, more candidates have been showing up here more often, staying longer, and coming back than any election in the past 30 years, experts say. But in the early going, California is still continuing in its role as ATM for national candidates, most analysts say. The Golden State has yet to become a place where they actually stump, reveal new policy, or cater to California concerns.
"They have been visiting for sure, but only to preach to the faithful, raise money, and leave," says Tony Quinn, coeditor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of congressional and state legislative races.
Californians are also donating far more money to presidential candidates this election cycle than the last. At this point in the 2004 presidential election, the top four candidates had raised some $10 million in the state, compared with $26 million now. Part of that, however, may be because of the accelerated primary schedule and no incumbent. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York is the early front-runner of all the candidates, with $8.7 million raised from California. Senator Obama (D) of Illinois is second with $8.2 million.
Now that is likely to be changing. Because Ms. Winfrey, the billionaire TV diva, has thrown her support behind Obama, all eyes are glued to what kind of influence her fete could have in the coming months.
"This Oprah fundraiser could be one of the more influential in a long time because she is one of the biggest endorsements that Obama has been able to secure, and she is very influential with women and blacks – two of his key constituents," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Her opinion matters a lot more than fellow politicians right now." But he and other analysts are a bit dubious of both the money and influence of Hollywood. "When Feb. 5 finally arrives, few people are going to vote for any of the presidential candidates just because Oprah endorsed one of them," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles.
Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota, likes to remind voters that Democratic contributors at California events "tend to be an exotic crowd to many other Americans, which hooks into the broader observation that the money people in both parties are not that representative of most Americans."
North of Tinseltown, Obama has been more competitive with Clinton than in Hollywood among the cellphone-holster set up in Silicon Valley. This year, Google's headquarters is proving to be the tech sector's Oprah mansion. Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Ron Paul have all addressed town-hall-style meetings involving thousands of Google's employees.
"Google has become the new place, a watering hole of sorts," says Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a nonprofit research group. Such gatherings give candidates access to individuals who not only are wealthy but are highly connected in the industry.
Candidates who drop in at the Googleplex also get their ears bent by the tech giant's increasingly robust lobbying arm. The company cares particularly about the US's economic competitiveness expansion of H1-B visas, which seek temporary help from skilled workers, and math and science education, says Adam Kovacevich, Google's Washington spokesman.
Similar issues are top of mind across Silicon Valley, creating disconnects with Washington.
"Every time I go to Washington, [people talk] of Asia as a threat, a security issue. They are still using terms like 'Red China,'" says Mr. Hancock. "Folks in Asia are not inscrutable, far away people here – they are our business partners, our friends, our spouses."
Immigration is a big worry in Silicon Valley – how to expand it, that is.
More than 40 percent of the population in the region is foreign born, and these are "our superstars," says Hancock.
These economic, rather than security, concerns make it heavy sledding for Republicans among the tech community, say analysts. Donations from Silicon Valley ZIP Codes are flowing to Democratic presidential hopefuls nearly 3 to 1 over Republicans. Mitt Romney, among the Republicans, has made the most headway – something observers chalk up to his venture capital background, his interest in Asia, and his talk of governing with a business sensibility.
Clinton and Obama, meanwhile, have garnered the most tech money for different reasons. Obama projects the qualities of youth, innovation, and optimism that permeate Silicon Valley. Clinton benefits from inroads made by her husband and his vice president, Al Gore, at the dawn of the region'/s political awakening in the mid-'90s. Her voting record, particularly on H1-B visas, also aligns her with Valley interests, says Sara Miles, author of "How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley."
Those interests have grown less idealistic over time, she notes. Back in the late '90s, techies talked of changing public education and campaign-finance rules. "Now they are fighting on how to count stock options and arguing much more narrowly on their issues," says Ms. Miles.