CHICAGO — President Obama holds the early advantage in the digital campaign for re-election, but his Republican challengers aren't ceding any ground in the race to gain an edge through social media and other online strategies.
At the Obama for America campaign headquarters in a skyscraper near Millennium Park, the emphasis on digital is everywhere. At one cluster of desks, 10 or so casually dressed young men with expertise in digital media brainstorm about the "next big thing" — perhaps the successor to Twitter — that the campaign will deploy to attract supporters and donors.
"They can focus on the general election, and they've raised a ton of money," said Alex Lundry, vice president and research director at TargetPoint Consulting, a data-mining firm that works with Republicans. "That allows them to do more."
Throughout Obama for America's 50,000-square-foot office, specialists in digital media work side by side with field operators, Web designers and phone-bank volunteers. The integration of employees with digital expertise together with more traditional political campaign staff is now standard operating procedure.
"We're getting organized; we're getting very organized," said Katie Hogan, the campaign's deputy press secretary who was standing near empty desks soon to be occupied by new hires. The campaign recently put out a call for "analysts and data geniuses."
Mr. Obama passed another e-milestone this week by becoming the nation's first commander in chief to open an account with the location-based social networking service Foursquare.
The account was announced on the White House blog Monday evening and has been put to use to "check in" and post "tips" and video on Mr. Obama's bus tour to small towns in Iowa and Minnesota. Within a day of opening the account, Mr. Obama had 11,000 Foursquare followers.
Joe Rospars, the campaign's chief digital strategist, said in a recruiting email that Obama for America "will wage the most innovative and effective digital campaign in history, a team that will not just surpass but demolish our fundraising, communications, and organizing goals."
Despite Mr. Obama's head start in online operations, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus said the president won't have the same advantage as in 2008 because he is no longer the new candidate on the block.
"Obama also had a movement in '08," Mr. Priebus told The Washington Times in a recent interview. "In politics, a movement transcends everything. We had a movement in 2010, and look what happened. You can't just rest your future in politics on what are you doing for social media."
But Mr. Lundry, who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign, said Mr. Obama's re-election operation is moving ahead ambitiously to analyze reams of data from various online sources and translating them into ways to gain donations and voters.
"What's different is they're doing it in-house," Mr. Lundry said. "Every component of the organization is sharing data liberally. Compared with four years ago, people are getting better at collecting data, analyzing it and linking it. That's where Obama is going, and that's where [Republicans] are going."
Mr. Obama, the first presidential candidate to fully exploit social media such as Facebook and Twitter, is able to build off an email list of about 9 million followers amassed during the 2008 campaign. In the second quarter of this year, Obama for America and the Democratic National Committee paid a combined $1.04 million to Bully Pulpit Interactive, which is handling online ads for both groups.
Obama for American paid another $400,000 to Blue State Digital, another online operation co-founded by Mr. Rospars.
In the Republican field, the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led in spending on digital media in the second quarter with about $330,000. The next closest was the campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who didn't crack the $100,000 mark and who is now out of the race.
Mr. Lundry, who worked for Mr. Romney's campaign in 2008 and whose firm is working with him again, said Mr. Romney has "clearly the only data-driven campaign on the Republican side."
Republicans are working on several fronts to match the Obama campaign's online prowess, although their effort isn't as coordinated as the Democrats' because the GOP is months away from choosing its nominee.
Mr. Romney's campaign has hired Zac Moffatt, formerly a partner at the Republican digital agency Targeted Victory, as the campaign's digital director. Mr. Moffatt worked for the RNC in 2008 and led the successful digital campaign in 2010 for Senate candidate Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. In the Romney campaign, he leads a stand-alone department at the same level as a traditional communications director or political strategist.
The RNC's Mr. Priebus described himself as an avid fan of social media and of the political potential of online means of communicating with donors and supporters.
He recounted how the RNC is working with partners in Silicon Valley to roll out a social media application called Way In, which Mr. Priebus described as a combination of "real-time polling and real-time 'friend' connections" to allow the GOP to communicate interactively with supporters.
"I think it's going to take the country by storm," he said. "It's more of a social media tool for us to use in communicating with our base, with social media folks, with the youth, with whoever wants to use the tool. We're thinking of everything that we can do to be better in the social media and digital world."
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