TAMPA — Walking through the Republican National Convention, it felt as much like a technology trade show as political nominating party, thanks to the branding and lobbying efforts of dozens of tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and AT&T.
Google wanted attendees to sip free lattes in a huge, colorfully designed rec room. Facebook invited attendees to snap pictures at photo booths that post the image direct to a user's wall. Twitter gave out T-shirts. And AT&T's logo was on RNC signage throughout downtown Tampa, the perk of being the event's "official wireless carrier."
The oversized show of force is a big change for many tech companies from Apple to Yelp that didn't used to pay much heed to politics or Washington D.C. Now they spend big to fete lawmakers and send representatives to work the rooms as other industries long have.
"You have companies spending more time dealing with regulation, dealing with Congress, dealing with the administration, and realizing they need a voice," said Rey Ramsey, president and CEO of TechNet. "Our power is directly commensurate with the awareness that the tech industry is so vital to the United States economy."
It helps, of course, that tech is a rare bright spot in an otherwise shaky economy. Being present allows politicians to bask in the reflected glow of tech's record on job creation and innovation, something they're pleased to take credit for, however unwarranted. From sponsoring elaborate parties with free-flowing food and wine to hawking their wares on the political elite, the industry came to play and, in some cases, pay, as sponsorships can cost up to millions of dollars in goods and services.
On Thursday alone, Broadband For America sponsored a panel on the nation's digital infrastructure, Facebook held an invite-only "Apps & Drinks" event for various politics-related app designers to show off their wares to politicians and journalists, and Google wrapped up its dominant RNC excursion by linking with the Young Guns Network for one last blowout bash.
And those were just the events made public. Behind the scenes and away from the cameras, companies as predictable as Microsoft and Apple or as surprising as Tumblr and Uber were bending the ears of officeholders and hopefuls.
"For us it's not about sponsoring a ton of events, it's really about being present in the room, making sure members have our app installed on their iPhones and iPads," said Luther Lowe, director of public policy at Yelp, at Tuesday's Innovation Nation party put on to by CEA, ESA, BSA, TechNet and others to fete Reps. Darrell Issa and Kevin McCarthy. "We've got a great story to tell, and we want to be able to educate policymakers and their staff about how people are using Yelp in their district."
It was a coming-of-age landmark for many in this industry. Several noted that their members barely understood how much political power they held or why it mattered until the debate over SOPA and PIPA early this year. After a coordinated effort to protest legislation many viewed as stifling to innovation that included blackouts by Wikipedia, Tumblr and others, the bills were spiked and the tech world realized it could impact public policy in a big way.
Like any big, diverse industry, different companies have different priorities. But every tech executive and lobbyist interviewed by POLITICO in Tampa mentioned how the struggle to find qualified labor is inhibiting their ability to grow and, in turn, help revive the stagnated economy.
"If you ask any CEO here which would they rather have, lower taxes or more visas for high-skilled workers, every one would take the visas any day of the week," insisted Joe Green, CEO and co-owner of the campaign software maker NationBuilder.
GOP leaders spoke from the convention podium about the importance of changing the tax structure to unleash innovation, but few industry figures at panels and events dwelled on that. Instead, they bemoaned the troubled public education system and urged better intellectual property protections.
"The Republican party focus on taxes as being the be-all and end-all of what is required for innovation is just ludicrous," said Jeremy Heimans, founder and CEO of the tech startup consultancy Purpos. "It's about so much more than low taxes. If it was just about low taxes, people would be setting up businesses with real employees in the Cayman Islands."