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New GOP Facebook app targets Obama's social-media dominance

Barack Obama won the social-media battle decisively in 2008. Republicans are trying to strike back, unveiling the Social Victory Center app on Facebook. 

By Staff writer / May 1, 2012

A screenshot of the Social Victory Center login.

Facebook screenshot

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WASHINGTON

The GOP thinks it has a killer app.

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The Republican National Committee unveiled its Social Victory Center on Tuesday, a Facebook application that lets users engage in campaign mainstays like phoning undecided voters, joining volunteer efforts, and distributing voter-registration materials from their couches or favorite cafés.

The app is an attempt to reverse the digital edge Democrats built by harnessing social media more adeptly during Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Republicans hope that it will help them with two key demographic groups, in particular: young voters and women. Fifty-four percent of Facebook's 161 million active US users are women, and 58 percent are under age 34, according to the RNC.

To be sure, the Social Victory Center will get Republicans into the social-media battle, and its use of Facebook is promising, analysts say. But they question whether it will be the game-changer that Republicans hope it will be.

"At some level, what they’ve done is they’ve taken the same kind of tools that were in the MyBarackObama.com toolkit four years ago and posted them to Facebook," says Colin Delany, the founder of epolitics.com. "But at the same time, they will be able to leverage a certain amount of social data – what's being shared, what's being viewed – and there is a possibility that they'll get a higher adoption rate because it's within Facebook." 

For their part, Republicans are casting their attempt to play catchup as an advantage. 

"Technology changes fast enough that you need to hit the reset button fairly often and frequently, and that's effectively what we've done," said Tim Schigel, chairman of tech firm ShareThis and a consultant to the RNC on technology. "There's a lot of learning from the past but ... to rely too much on technology that was used in the past was a mistake, and that might actually be something that slows down the Obama team because they've built so much.... We don't have that baggage."

It could also mean, however, that the RNC has a long way to go in building up the app. While it has numerous, far-reaching functions, the actual information on the application is sparse, says Karen Jagoda, co-founder of the E-Voter Institute, a nonpartisan trade association for Web companies interested in politics.

For example, Ms. Jagoda notes that the only volunteer opportunity near her California home is 120 miles away.

"I don't think it's quite ready for prime time," she said after looking through the app on Tuesday afternoon.

Though, she added, "I think its got the bare bones of what they're trying to accomplish."

Its features include:

  • Piping news and video from the RNC or state Republican committees directly to users.
  • Acting as a portal to help users find local campaign events and create their own events.
  • Directing volunteers to nearby efforts and providing an online forum for discussion.
  • Storing a bevy of documents and information – from absentee-ballot applications to notifications about early voting to handouts for a local PTA meeting.

When users click through each of these things, the app publishes that activity into their friends' Facebook feeds, thus ensuring that their friends see what SVC users are reading, attending, and doing. 

But spreading the word digitally is only part of the program. The app also lets users make phone calls to undecided voters in a dozen swing states. Users input their phone number and are given a call from a central database. Once they pick up, their phone is connected to a potential voter. The volunteer, with a script prepared by the GOP's political team on the screen in front of them, asks the voter questions and fills out a form in the app.

It's a function that allows the RNC to use huge numbers of activists in deeply conservative or liberal states that would otherwise find it difficult to contribute in more competitive states.

"We have scores of people around the country in these red or blue states that – in the past – we haven't had anything for them to do," says RNC Political Director Rick Wiley. "The old model was to deploy them across the country and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and flights, and now they can do it from their living room."

Jagoda is skeptical that volunteers making calls from one state will be able to do much more than gather information from voters in another state.

"If someone is passionate about politics in Wyoming, are they going to connect with somebody who is an independent voter in New Mexico?" she says. "I'm not convinced that passion in politics translates across state lines as much as some people think it does. It's one thing to get excited about a presidential candidate, it's another for a senator or a congressman or a governor in another state."

Mr. Delany of e-politics agrees: "It’s good for engaging the loyalists and giving them something to do," he says, but "not likely to make a huge difference in the outcome of the election."

What could be more helpful, Jagoda says, is the granular data Republicans get from the app about its users. The party could leverage that information for a variety of purposes, from get-out-the-vote efforts to tailored messages to users who are interested a single issue, like education or the economy. 

The degree to which Republicans use this information to forge connections with voters will determine the app's effectiveness, Jagoda says.

After inputting her information into the application, she says: "Let's see how much they encourage me to come back to this app. If they put it out there and just let it sit there, I don't give it too high a chance of succeeding. If they know how to work it, we might see some interesting surprises out of this."

Delany says the RNC could be shooting for around 2 million accounts – a level of participation similar to MyBarackObama.com, the non-Facebook site established by the Obama campaign in 2008.

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