Following the Obama-Romney race via smart-phone app: Good idea?

Both the Romney and Obama campaigns have unveiled new smart-phone apps, highlighting the growing importance of mobile devices in political communication. But are they dumbing it down, too?

Patrick Semansky/AP
A woman uses her smart-phone to take a photograph of President Obama as he speaks at a fundraising reception in Baltimore, Tuesday, June 12.

When a political campaign plays out on a smart phone, it can sometimes feel, for lack of a better word, small.

On Tuesday, both the Romney and Obama campaigns unveiled new smart-phone apps, highlighting the growing importance of mobile devices in campaign communications.  

For what it’s worth, the Romney app – promising early notification of the candidate’s running-mate selection – quickly jumped to a sizable lead in downloads over the Obama app. According to iTunes, the Romney app as of Wednesday morning was No. 15 among free apps, while President Obama’s languished at No. 149. (No. 1 was NBC’s Olympics app, for those who are wondering.)

It may be a sign of greater enthusiasm among Romney supporters. Or it may simply point to the value of a gimmick.

The Romney app, called “Mitt’s VP,” will supposedly be the place breaking the news of Mitt Romney’s running-mate pick, notifying users via an alert – though whether it actually plays out this way remains to be seen. Notably, the Obama campaign in 2008 tried virtually the exact same gimmick with texting, but the news wound up being leaked to the media well before the official text message went out to supporters.

The app will have no ostensible purpose after the vice-presidential selection is announced (which will probably happen sometime before the Republican convention starts at the end of August). But it encourages users to follow the campaign on Twitter and connect on Facebook, and it conveniently gives the campaign a way to track its supporters, who must enter their name, e-mail, phone number, and address.

The Obama app, by contrast, is more complex, and more of a grass-roots mobilizing tool. It helps users find campaign events in their area and gives them an easy, one-touch way to volunteer, make phone calls, and canvass, as well as receive the latest communications from the campaign.

Obviously, to the extent either of these apps helps the campaigns connect with supporters, they’re useful. In 2008, the Obama team was truly groundbreaking in the ways it employed technology; since then, Americans’ reliance on smart phones has increased exponentially, creating even more opportunities for campaigns to communicate with voters.

Still, we can’t help wondering: Who is actually downloading these apps (besides reporters, who have to)? And while we generally consider anything that makes it easier for voters to get involved a good thing, it’s pretty clear the smart-phone campaign has come with some less positive side effects, too.

There’s been a general agreement among the media that the 2012 campaign is not only entering new territory when it comes to technology – but also when it comes to triviality (despite the very serious challenges facing America). Much of the blame has been placed on the fact that social-media communication tends to thrive on cheap shots and ginned-up controversies. It’s fun, but shallow: After all, who can really discuss policy in 140 characters?

This week, BuzzFeed posted a telling screen-shot comparison of subject lines in Obama campaign e-mails from 2008 and 2012. In the 2008 lineup were headings like “Strategy briefing,” “June numbers,” and “Our platform.” In 2012, by contrast, messages went out with the subject lines: “Warning: This picture is cute,” “You’ll need to comb your hair for this,” and “So cool.”

Sure, that may reflect the Obama campaign’s need to distract from the bad economy. But it’s hard to see how an “LOL campaign” that focuses on gimmicks and gaffes will give voters any more confidence in their leaders.

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