2016 Presidential Election: The Entrepreneurial Vote
Back in 2004, I was a young idealist working on then-Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign when Google launched its initial public offering. Google was the hottest tech company, but to the political world, terms like “startups” and “entrepreneurs” invoked memories of the 2000 tech bubble. Outreach to the tech community consisted mostly of soliciting campaign contributions from select venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.
Since then, Americans have seen startup ecosystems grow and prosper all over the country. More importantly, startups are disrupting industries that candidates traditionally focus on: education, energy, transportation and cities, and healthcare.
Startup Growth in Red, Blue, and Purple States
According to the 2015 Kauffman Index: Startup Activity, 32 of 50 states saw increases in startup activity, and venture capital activity rose in 18 of the nation’s top 40 metropolitan areas. Republicans should note that of the top 10 states seeing startup growth, six are solid Red states (Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Idaho), and three are swing states (Colorado, Florida, Nevada). The critical early primary state of South Carolina had the biggest jump on the index, moving up 17 spots.
For Democrats, the top metropolitan areas to target include traditional strongholds (Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco) and those where they need to increase voter turnout in order to win the swing states (Miami, Denver, Las Vegas, Columbus). Columbus, OH had the biggest increase in startup activity of any metropolitan area, jumping up 10 spots to number 12. The Democrats also have cities in states where they are trying to make significant inroads (Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Phoenix).
Back in June, Economic Innovation Group commissioned a survey of 800 likely voters in eight swing states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the surveyed voters said they want innovative entrepreneurs and investors to take larger roles in solving the country’s long-term economic problems.
Entrepreneurs are great at solving problems. So, why not strengthen the ties between the public and private sectors?
Do candidates now need tech agendas? No. What the candidates need to do is to incorporate innovation into policy proposals that are at the cores of their campaigns. Candidates’ policy proposals should empower entrepreneurs to build high-growth companies, raise capital, and develop strong public-private partnerships — not to mention articulate how they will innovate government. While issues such as net neutrality and patent reform get a lot of attention on Capitol Hill, they aren’t priorities in elections.
The candidates in the race for president range from outsiders such as Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, who continue to lead the Republican field in all polls, to longtime political leaders such as Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is surging after the past three strong debate performances, and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is drawing enormous crowds and rallying voters to “Feel the Bern.”
What are these candidates saying that’s of interest to entrepreneurs? Do they have plans to tackle major problems by incorporating technology and innovation into their agendas? Let’s review what some of the candidates leading the polls are thinking.
Republicans (in order of polls)
“The Donald” has criticized Silicon Valley for abusing H-1B visas, which permit U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for set time periods. Trump said he would “increase the prevailing wage for H-1B visa recipients in order to encourage employers to hire native workers for well-paying science, technology, engineering and math jobs, rather than flying in foreign workers.”
Dr. Ben Carson
On a trip to San Francisco in September, the doctor said, when it comes to improving STEM education, “We’re not going to solve it when it comes to traditional educational endeavors. The whole concept of virtual classrooms — where we can put the very best teachers in front of a million students instead of 30 students. When we begin to use our technology to help solve some of our problems, I think it’s going to be tremendous boon for us.”
Senator Marco Rubio
Rubio has been the most active Republican to date engaging the startup economy, and he’s visited incubators in Chattanooga, Chicago, and New York City since announcing his candidacy. Rubio used these visits to roll out policy ideas on fostering innovation. Last month in New York City, he profiled 1776 startup member Handy as an example of how the on-demand economy can “spark upward mobility for workers.” Rubio has been an outspoken advocate for startups transforming industries and for creating an environment where government regulation does not stifle growth.
Senator Ted Cruz
Cruz has explained his controversial tactics in Congress by calling himself a disruptor and comparing himself to Uber and Lyft. He has called net neutrality the “Obamacare of the Internet.”
The former Governor of Florida took an Uber to a town hall at San Francisco-based startup Thumbtack this past July to show that he is in touch with the new economy. Ironically, his driver expressed support for Hillary Clinton afterwards.
Democrats (in order of polls)
Back in July, Clinton gave her first major economic speech, where she addressed issues impacting entrepreneurs. She wants to “empower entrepreneurs with less red tape, easier access to capital, tax relief, and simplification.” Clinton said she wants to increase government funding for research and development, make America a clean-energy superpower, and tackle immigration reform. In her economic speech, Clinton took a cautious tone on the hot topic of labor issues in the on-demand economy while expressing optimism about the power of innovation.
Recently, Clinton visited San Francisco startup Munchery and met with CEOs from companies such as Box, Lyft, Airbnb, and others to further discuss workforce classifications.
Senator Bernie Sanders
The “Grumpy Grandpa” and Larry David doppelgänger has openly criticized sharing-economy startups like Uber as being “unregulated.” While critical of startups and advocating the breaking up of Wall Street banks, Sanders does see “an enormously important role… for entrepreneurial activity.” Sanders hasn’t spent much time engaging with the innovation community.
Governor Martin O’Malley
O’Malley made “Civic Tech” a campaign theme. He has sought to shine a spotlight on how he utilized technology as mayor of Baltimore and Maryland governor to solve problems. The governor has hosted pitch competitions for Civic Tech startups in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. and held a panel discussion at 1776 member Brigade’s headquarters.
Time to Get Active
For the most part, the candidates are making favorable statements about the innovation economy, and both sides are engaging on the independent contractor issue among others. However, candidates are missing incredible opportunities to galvanize entrepreneurs across the country, especially in early primary and battleground states.
Candidates have virtually ignored entrepreneurs transforming the highly regulated sectors like education, health, and cities. Startup community leaders can be forces as financial donors and in mobilizing stakeholders in the innovation economy at the grassroots level. Candidates should leverage incubators and accelerators across the country to connect with entrepreneurs just as they would host coffees with traditional small-business owners in Des Moines, Manchester, or Reno.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs are driving the future of our economy and hold much greater sway in elections than they might think. Less than 90 days are left until the presidential election season officially kicks off in Iowa on Feb. 1, and entrepreneurs will need to start paying close attention to which candidates are incorporating ideas to bolster the innovation economy into their policy proposals.
The 2016 presidential election is the most important one to date for the startup community. The next administration will play a pivotal role in shaping policies that will impact the rapidly growing innovation economy. The entrepreneurial vote is vital in 2016.