Feb 20, 2019 - Politics & Policy

They're all geek candidates now

Animated GIF of candidate with button featuring various tech symbols

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The era of the geek candidacy is over. For the first time, the ability to understand the impact of technology and explain it to the American voter isn’t something that sets a Democratic presidential aspirant apart — it’s expected.

Why it matters: The debates that drive presidential races — like how to create economic opportunity, protect national security and safeguard democratic institutions — are all being shaped by rapid technological change.

Flashback: For decades, Democratic presidential candidates have stood out by branding themselves as the tech-savvy candidate in the race.

  • Gary Hart, who mounted primary campaigns in 1984 and 1988, was one of several lawmakers branded "Atari Democrats" in the 1980s because they championed tech investments.
  • Al Gore was another Atari Democrat who ran for president, hitting the 2000 trail with a Palm Pilot on his belt.
  • Howard Dean famously embraced what he called “the Net” to plot his his presidential run, before his “Dean scream” went viral — on the Net.
  • Barack Obama dined with tech leaders, hired a Facebook co-founder to build his online organizing operation and weighed in on tech issues like net neutrality.

Even early on, debates about technology were proxies for broader societal shifts. Hart said that his 1984 Democratic primary with Walter Mondale "divided the country" around questions of how to deal with changes wrought by technology and globalization.

Now, candidates are all declaring their tech bona fides.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) called for digital privacy and net neutrality rules while announcing her candidacy. “Hey guys, it’s not just coming, it’s here. And if you don’t know the difference between a hack and Slack, it’s time to pull off the digital highway,” she said.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) made online harassment a signature issue as a prosecutor and took on some tech issues in the Senate.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was an early proponent of stronger antitrust policies to take on tech giants.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), spokesperson Evan Lukaske said in an email, thinks America lags on privacy and cybersecurity.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is friendly with Mark Zuckerberg and tried to lure Amazon’s HQ2 to Newark, but has also expressed concerns about the size and power of large tech companies.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) mounted a successful campaign against Amazon over its labor practices.
  • South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is exploring a long shot bid, said he's interested in questions around job automation, cybersecurity and consumer privacy. He, too, is friendly with Zuckerberg.
  • And Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), another long shot candidate, has called for policies that reckon with job automation due to artificial intelligence.

The bottom line: “When everybody’s mom and dad and grandpa can operate a phone and be on social platforms, it’s not a differentiator,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Yes, but: Tech issues are rarely at the top of voters’ agendas compared to pocketbook or public safety issues.

  • A Klobuchar aide said the challenge will be convincing voters that the tech issues that play a huge role in their lives matter in the campaign.
  • This group of Democratic candidates skews slightly younger, meaning they've come up in the era of the internet. Sanders, who joined the race this week, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to say whether he is entering, belong to an older generation.

Driving the news: Democrats have given up on their cozy relationship with Silicon Valley as major companies face controversies over privacy, content moderation and their market power.

  • “Senator Gillibrand believes technology, when harnessed correctly, can create jobs, strengthen American security, and expand educational opportunities,” said Gillibrand's spokesperson Lukaske. “However, she also recognizes that governments and private businesses can exploit an individual's personal data, which must stop.”

The bottom line: Once, understanding the way technological innovation was transforming America might have seemed novel, but now it's just reality — and stands to drive political conversations for decades to come.

  • “Everybody’s now an Atari Democrat,” said Hart, “at least on the Democratic side.”
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