Social media

After digital defeat, GOP puts its faith in Facebook engineer

June 5, 2013 at 4:38 PM ET

A typo in the Mitt Romney 2012 phone app quickly became an Internet meme
Know Your Meme
Double face palm: A typo in the Mitt Romney 2012 phone app quickly became an Internet meme mocking the campaign's (lack of) tech savvy.

When Americans voted to keep President Barack Obama in the White House for a second term, his super team of tech nerds was largely credited with his success, profiling constituents and crunching their personal info in a manner not unfamiliar at, say, Facebook. The Republicans, apparently, took note.

With less than three-and-a-half years until the next presidential convention, the Republican National Committee is revamping its digitally defeated team by going straight to the source, hiring former Facebook Engineering Manager Andy Barkett as its Chief Technology Officer.

In the Wednesday announcement, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Barkett would be "leading the effort to expand our data and digital capabilities." He added, "I am confident that with Andy's experience and our continued efforts to build meaningful relationships with experts in Silicon Valley, we'll see the changes to this part of our operation that we all agree are both important and necessary to winning elections in the future."

The RNC has a lot of catching up to do, even by its own admission. "We weren't even running in the same race," a Mitt Romney aide told BuzzFeed following the election.

Indeed, the Obama campaign leveraged Big Data like never before, using all that personal data we leave online. Analysts and algorithms broke down the readily available info to do everything "from connecting Facebook data to the national list of registered voters, to measuring how 'persuadable' individual swing state voters might be," ProPublica reported following the election.

What's more, the team was way ahead of the curve when it came to using the Internet to reach that valuable 18 to 25-year-old voting demographic who is rarely reachable by phone.

Even without the inevitable comparison, the Romney campaign’s own attempt to harness voter data to reach potential voters failed. ORCA, a mobile app meant to help volunteers record voter turnout, crashed repeatedly throughout election day. “ORCA is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” one Romney aid reportedly said.

Adding insult to injury, Republican Team Romney was repeatedly bested by Team Obama, proving that money is less important that savvy. True, the Romney campaign was the first presidential campaign to purchase a "sponsored hashtag" on Twitter, launching #AreYouBetterOff, launching the initiative at the top of Twitter’s trending list during the Democratic National Convention. The attempt to inspire criticism of the Obama administration backfired however, when the hashtag was largely used for mockery along these lines:

#AreYouBetterOff ? Sure am. My wife and I are now gainfully employed and can almost afford to vote #republican but we're still voting #Obama

The Romney campaign also came under questioning when the candidate’s Twitter followers skyrocketed in 24 hours on July 21, the presumptive Republican nominee acquired nearly 117,000 followers — an increase of about 17 percent. According to an analysis from Barracuda Labs, more than 152,000 of Romney’s followers were fake.

Obama successfully turned the social media table on Romney in the midst of the Republican National Convention, logging on to Reddit for a surprise "Ask Me Anything" Q&A with the public, which attracted a lot of media attention, occupying at least some of the GOP’s spotlight.

From "Binders Full of Women," Romney's debate gaff about job equity for women, to his PBS funding remark which lead to "Fired Big Bird," Romney was also the butt of the most popular Internet memes of the campaign season. Many of these memes proliferated on Reddit, where Obama enjoyed overwhelming popularity, further illustrating the social media divide.

While hiring a new chief technology officer who comes straight from Facebook won't fix all of the RNC's tech disconnect, it's an aggressive start towards the 2016 campaign season.

"It's essential that the Republican Party has the resources to drive voter turnout as we look toward the elections of 2014, 2016 and beyond," Barkett, the new CTO said in a statement. "Silicon Valley welcomes the party's efforts to be more creative and innovative, and I look forward to helping the party accomplish these goals."

Helen A.S. Popkin is Deputy Technology & Science editor for NBCNews.com and TODAY.Follow her onTwitter and Facebook.

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