'08 Candidates Stump at Google

When Frances Haugen left Iowa for California, she figured she would never get to see a presidential candidate up close again. But since taking a job at Google a year ago, Haugen has been courted in person by John McCain, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson. On Wednesday, it was Barack Obama's turn to woo the 23-year-old product manager—and 1,500 of her fellow "Googlers" in a standing-room-only crowd at the company's Mountain View campus. There he delivered a speech on Internet policy and subjected himself to questions from CEO Eric Schmidt, streamed live on the Web to the search giant's nearly 16,000 employees worldwide. "I like to think of the [campaign] as a job interview," said Schmidt, as Obama pretended to look nervous in a sleek red leather lounger onstage under the company's logo. "It's hard to get the job as president, and it's hard to get a job at Google."

Hence, the Google primary. While the candidates tromp from New Hampshire diners to Iowa town halls and into TV studios for what has already become a numbing round of debates, the Silicon Valley search-engine giant has managed to make itself a different kind of must-stop on the 2008 trail. Obama follows the candidates mentioned above, plus Ron Paul, the Texas GOP congressman who's become an Internet-fund-raising phenomenon, to the "Googleplex," as the company's luxurious campus 30 miles south of San Francisco is known. New York City Mayor (and potential independent candidate) Mike Bloomberg also made a stop. And GOP hopeful Mitt Romney is expected next.

What's good for Google, it seems, is good for America. Attracting the candidates is easy, says Bob Boorstin, a former Clinton administration official who is now the company's director for communications and public policy. "There is sheer fascination with this company that has an unorthodox reputation and has done so well," he says. "They want to show that they get it, that they understand that a large part of our competitiveness in the country lies in our ability to develop technologies."

While geeks of earlier tech booms had a reputation for being isolated from the outside world, Googlers, says Boorstin, are also "passionately tuned in" to politics, making them key influentials in a campaign that is expected to grow increasingly Web-based as it moves from early primary states, where television is still king. Frances Haugen, the Iowan who joined Google, worked as an organizer for Howard Dean there in 2004. She hopes to share with the Obama campaign this time around some of her ideas for decentralized coordination of online advertising. "These are the people you need right now as a campaign is gaining momentum," says Larry Lessig, founder of the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, who this week declared himself an Obama supporter. "If you can get this signal on your side, that really changes how you are seen in the wider world."

Presidential campaigning has already evolved significantly since 2004 when Dean become an early favorite of the "Netroots," as online party activists are known, then surged to front-runner status, before imploding after the Iowa caucuses. Then, the question was why Dean's online status failed to translate into real-life votes. This time around, says Haugen, she senses that "Obama has substantially deeper and broader support in the 'real world' than Dean did." The proliferation of broadband access and online video has also had an impact on all the candidates' strategies. In 2008, the Internet has become a communications and fund-raising tool for all the candidates. "It's the ultimate window into the campaign and the character of the candidate," says Steve Grove, YouTube's head of news and politics. "It is a technology tool, but ultimately the character of the candidate and the campaign is what is going to determine success."

Persuading the Googlers, who will in turn influence their tens or hundreds of thousands of socially networked friends to support a candidate online, could ultimately prove more useful in 2008 than charming some Iowa county chairman—and hoping the mainstream media take notice. Obama acknowledged as much Wednesday when he recalled the "improbable journeys" that he and Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had taken in the decade since they met, when he was a community organizer and Illinois state senator and Page and Brin, now worth some $37 billion in Google stock, were graduate students at Stanford tinkering with their program to organize the world's information. "What we shared was a belief in changing the world from the bottom up, not the top down."

Positioning himself as a fresh alternative to established Democratic Party favorites such as Clinton, Obama has relied heavily on social-networking tools, such as YouTube and Facebook as well as his own campaign's Web site to post--as well as solicit--policy ideas from supporters. Obama has more members on YouTube (7,000), the user-generated video-content site Google purchased last year for $1.65 billion, than any other Democratic candidate. So far, he told the Googlers, he had collected 15,000 ideas from online visitors on subjects from health care to American's image around the world. As president, Obama promised, he would establish a Google-like search engine for government spending that would allow citizens to "track grants, earmarks and government contracts, so that you can review and offer suggestions before it is signed."

Obama also said he would adopt information technologies to reduce the cost of health care and improve access—but with a new-media twist. Referring to the Clintons' failed health-care plan in 1993, which was torpedoed in large part by television ads sponsored by insurance companies featuring a fictional worried middle-American couple fretting about socialized medicine, Obama promised to fire back against "special interests" in real time. "If they start running 'Harry and Louise' ads, I'll send out my own ads on YouTube," he vowed, to whoops from the Googlers.

Obama's emphasis on "bottom up" and interactive technologies played well with the crowd, many of whom pecked at their laptops, checking Obama's facts and references as he spoke. "I think it makes people feel as though their government is actually theirs," e-mailed Google employee Noah Cook-Durbin after he heard Obama speak. "I personally am sick of feeling like my opinion doesn't matter." The 25-year-old said he was impressed by Obama, especially his ideas for improving education and America's standing in the world, but that for now, he was keeping his mind "open" to other candidates. And while a Google appearance can generate great buzz, there isn't yet clear evidence that the money will follow. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, employees of the $200 billion company have so far contributed only $175,000 to the presidential candidates.)

Obama didn't seem deterred. Asked by one Googler how Obama planned to counter the standard criticism that he lacked experience to run the country, Obama invoked the company's founders. "Sergey and Larry didn't have a lot of experience starting a Fortune 100 company," Obama said. "I supposed when they came and talked … about incorporating Google, they could have said, they don't know what they are talking about." If, in the end, Obama said, he failed to make a difference in the presidential campaign, he and his wife, Michelle, already agreed, "I should just take a job at Google." Judging from the cheers, he probably passed the test.