Tech Industry Straddles Party PoliticsStudy finds computer industry supports issues, not candidates or parties, in its growing contributions.
Jennifer O'Neill, Medill News Service
WASHINGTON-- It would have been difficult for federal lawmakers not to notice the revolutionary success of the computer industry in the past ten years. Computer companies contributed almost $40 million to political parties in the 2000 election cycle alone--an 821 percent jump from 1992's $4.3 million, according to data from the Campaign Study Group, a private firm that tracks campaign contributions. But through this decade of technological advance and the increasing campaign contributions that followed, no particular party can claim to be the industry's favorite.
Each election cycle from 1992 to 2000 shows an alternation of the party collecting the greater contributions. And the cumulative results show a similar equity. Of the ten-year soft money total, Democrats collected only 1.7 percent more than Republicans did.
"It's no surprise to me that there isn't a pattern of giving," says Tinabeth Burton, spokesperson for the Information Technology Association of America, a member-funded association of technology companies. "High-tech has always been very bipartisan. The issues are not primarily Republican or Democratic; they really cut across party lines," she says.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees.
"Industry is very complicated, and they don't all have exactly the same interests," Hess says. "Even within the technology community, a lot of people were cheering the Microsoft case, and still many others in the industry were booing it."
Young Industry Learns Fast
And the fact that the computer industry is a comparatively new player in the political arena may factor in as well.
"We've seen over the years a trend of more and more giving, and what we're seeing is an industry growing up," Hess notes. "Before technology exploded, many people in these companies were not politically savvy. They made inventions in their garages." But the technology industry is pragmatic, he notes: "If the government is going to be controlled by one party, then the object is to give to that party, and that's what you'll see." He points to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress after 40 years of Democratic rule.
The contributions that fed the 1993-1994 election cycle are a prime example of the computer industry's fickle political party support. In the previous cycle, Democrats received 1.3 times more soft money contributions than the Republicans. But Democrats watched their total shrink in the next year, to just 13 percent of what Republicans received the year they assumed congressional power. But rather than viewing this shifting support as political opportunism, Burton thinks it is simply evidence of bipartisan support.
"The technology industry is wonderfully successful at having friends on both sides of the aisle. In that way, information technology has not been a traditional industry," she says.
Issues, Regions Play Role
In the 1997-1998 election cycle, for example, Sun Microsystems contributed 1.6 times more money to Republicans than Democrats, but the following cycle shows Democrats receiving 4.4 times more than Republicans. And if such shifts show that campaign contributions are based on the issues rather than parties, computer industry representatives say there are many ways companies can determine whom to support.
Usually, some funding goes to the incumbent in a company's district. For example, Houston-based Compaq gave $50,000 to President George W. Bush's Republican party in 2000 and zero to Democrats. But campaign messages also are important to deciding which party to back.
"We look to see if candidates are supportive of our goals," Burton says. "Bush and Gore actually had similar messages regarding high tech. It was almost like the Internet never came up in debate this fall because they were coming from the same position."
Burton says companies also consider the legislation a candidate has sponsored or supported. Key technology industry concerns today are privacy legislation, encryption, and Internet taxes. And in addition to these issues, there are currently 76 computer-related bills in Congress dealing with everything from cyberterrorism to education.
Personality, Philosophy Considered
Faced with all these issues, some companies still choose instead to base their political support on personal relationships.
Longtime Novell chief Eric Schmidt is described as "a confidant of [Al] Gore's" by Novell spokesperson Bruce Lowry. "He's actively engaged in, and has ties to, the political arena. Since Gore lost, he's been very quiet," Lowry says. In the 2000 campaign cycle, Novell gave $75,000 to Democrats and $68,000 to Republicans. Although Schmidt is relinquishing the title of chief executive officer as part of Novell's acquisition of Cambridge Technology Partners, he remains the company's chairman and chief strategist.
Tech industry representatives expect to continue to duck labels and craft alliances in both parties.
"A lot of our issues fall apart when it comes to pinning a political philosophy on them," says Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel for the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "We're pro-immigration, which is liberal, but we're also very supportive of low tax rates, which Republicans support more."
Technology is a business that is acutely aware of climate changes, whether in markets, the economy, or politics.
"There's been kind of a struggle in Washington to pin us down in one camp or the other, but we believe it's to our benefit not to be viewed as a wing of one party or another," Mahler adds. "We look to the issues. Our giving evens out in the long run."