RNC vs. DNC Online: Precinct-Walking or Social-Networking?

RNC vs. DNC Online: Precinct-Walking or Social-Networking?

BY Micah Sifry and Joshua Levy | Monday, October 9 2006

It's a month before the November elections, and it's all about getting the word out.

Over the last few months, the Democratic and Republican National Committees have unveiled high-powered upgrades to their main web sites that are intended to help them mobilize voters, raise money, spread their messages and get out the vote. Both parties’ Internet teams have clearly been studying the explosion of social networking sites like MySpace and both are also obviously interested in figuring out how to tap the energies of bloggers and other online activists.

As in 2004, both parties have taken radically different approaches to online-offline organizing, with the Republicans seemingly trying to channel supporters narrowly into certain activities, like walking their precinct and talking to registered Republicans, while the Democrats appear to be encouraging a much-more freewheeling array of user-generated activity on their site, presumably in the hopes of drawing more supporters in and then turning them toward party-building work by Election Day. At this point it isn't clear which strategy will be more successful. What follows is a review of both sites, with a focus on the social-networking strategies they're using, and some judgments on their value. First, the Republicans.

MyGOP

If you start on the RNC’s home page, you have to hunt around a bit to find MyGOP, the heart of the site’s social networking features. Instead, a big chunk of prime real estate on the site’s home page is given over to their “Action Center,” It includes an array of powerful tools, two of which may give the Republicans a clear edge as Election Day approaches. The first is Precinct Organizer.

There’s really only one purpose to this page, to do people-to-people organizing, either by building an email list or by registering your zipcode and discovering, complete with a Google Map mashup with little elephant-shaped pointers, exactly who else in your neighborhood is a Republican activist.

The second tool that you can access from the RNC’s home page that ought to be giving Democrats sleepless nights is their “Neighbor to Neighbor” page, which enables volunteers to enter their address and get a walk-list of nearby registered Republicans, along with suggested talking points. Democrats could easily do the same thing, but first they would have to purchase and share fifty state voter files; apparently for all the years of talk from Democrats about building such a database, they have yet to implement a similar system for involving local volunteers. Thus (and we’re jumping ahead of ourselves here), the best the DNC site does with someone who wants to talk to other registered Democrats in their neighborhood is offer to collect their contact information and put them in touch with their state party. Which we can only imagine is hardly an effective action.

You have to scan down the list of “Action Center” features to find MyGOP (you can also get there by first clicking “Get Active” at the top of the homepage and then choosing to build your own website). MyGOP bills itself as "the next generation of political organizing." On its homepage, registered users can contact each other via personal messages, upload photos, and post fundraising goals. MyGOP is built around the idea of the "team," a group of friends and family that are also volunteering for the GOP. The goal here is not to get single users to participate and raise money (though that works too), but also to recruit other users, spread the word, register voters, and fundraise, fundraise, fundraise.
There are various tools included in the MyGOP package, some of which -- confusingly -- do not fall under aegis of "MyGOP" but still utilize the GOP Team you created in MyGOP.

As evidenced by this focus on groups, MyGOP seems to have taken a cue from Meetup.com and kept an eye on offline organizing while developing online organizing tools. This is smart -- the end goal of any party's online effort is not just to get people to meet more people and create online friends, but to get them to fundraise, out on the streets, and in the voting booth. Those are intensely real-world goals, and the GOP is careful to keep this in the foreground. Blogging and photo uploading is pushed to the background, and the blogging feature is particularly limited. Member blogs are actually just collections of comments made on the official GOP blog, which is written by GOP.com staff.

Partybuilder

Perhaps as a result of watching the intense participation on such progressive and Democratic-friendly sites as DailKos, myDD, and Josh Marshall's TPM Cafe, as well as the popularity of hubs like MySpace and Facebook, the Democratic National Committee recently introduced Partybuilder, "a set of online tools designed to empower Democrats to take control of the future of their party." Like MyGOP, the goal is to use online networking tools to create offline political action. But unlike MyGOP, the DNC has put PartyBuilder front and center on its homepage.

Even more interesting about Partybuilder, however, isn't that they've tapped into current trends among online liberals, but the length the DNC’s Internet team went to develop a custom über-platform that would do the job of all the above services.

Partybuilder takes features from our favorite social-networking applications and rolls them into one package. On the home page of the site, called the "Dashboard," logged-in users see their profile, events they've created, are attending, or are nearby, their blog, messages from their friend network, groups, fundraising news, and a link to a letter-writing tool. Similar to sites like MySpace or Facebook, these links also appear as tabs at the top of each page in Partybuilder.

The site encourages users to find friends and create groups. They can browse groups by category, location, or the most activity, etc., and in this PARTYBUILDER is much easier to navigate than MyGOP. It also allows users much greater freedom to create and post content on the site. For example, the "Blogs" section of Partybuilder is a robust application on its own. Like Blogger or LiveJournal, this section displays tools for writing, managing, and editing a blog, as well as recent posts from the Partybuilder blogging community. And it even includes features that some services lack, like the ability to add tags to a post.

The other services in Partybuilder are equally feature-filled and should impress users of existing online communities. From petition-writing to fundraising to event creation, the site offers a well-designed interface that can hold its own next to commercial services. All of these features, however, might intimidate less experienced users. If many first-time bloggers have difficulty simply navigating the interfaces of a blogging platform, this interface will thoroughly bewilder them.

Nevertheless, Partybuilder is a powerful suite of applications that rival any commercial social-networking app. But the most important aspect of the site is not its design or its information architecture. As with other social-networking apps, it's the openness -- user-created lateral networking -- that has the potential to build a strong user base.

Partybuilder users are allowed to create content and share it amongst themselves, free from interference from above, which has been the key to the explosive success of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other sites. MyGOP favors a more controlled approach, with no blogging or advanced social networking function beyond finding friends and creating groups. As Brian Livingston recently noted, however, rather than build its own platform the GOP is looking to outsource the social-networking to already established sites.

The point of both of these sites is not to simply fundraise but to create a larger party base. As Michael Turk wrote about MyGOP a few months back, "this is not about seeing our supporters as an online ATM machine, but rather as recruiters to grow, strengthen and deepen the party (which includes financial strength, but is not limited to that)."

Which set of online tools will prove more important in Election 2006? That is the big question. At this point, it’s possible to glean some indications. Judging from participation in areas with hotly contested congressional races, Partybuilder has been a bigger success than MyGOP.

In both Nevada’s Third Congressional District and Colorado’s Fourth Congressional District – both key 2006 races – there are but a handful of active members for both parties. In the Nevada district there are six Republicans and eight Democrats with user profiles, and in the Colorado district there are 18 Republicans 19 Democrats with profiles. Most of those on Partybuilder have full profiles, describing their background and political motivations, but no blog posts. By contrast, the MyGOP profiles in these districts feature photographs of some users but no other information. Both of these districts could benefit from the kind of grassroots organizing these sites provide, yet no users have blogs, friends, teams, or have recruited volunteers.

Another way to judge these sites is by their fundraising success. Partybuilder isn’t set up to track fundraising, but MyGOP links fundraising goals to its users’ profiles. Only one user had raised money -- $10 -- in either of the above districts. (This, of course, does not mean the Republicans have failed to raise money in those districts, only that MyGOP volunteers hadn’t raised money through the site.)

Finally, there’s an essential difference between the blogs on these sites. The official GOP.com blog is written by a staff member and updated about once day. Commenting is very active and lively, and all comments show up on the commenters’ personal sites. Democrats.org also features an official blog with vigorous commenting, but the Partybuilder blog (under the “Blogs” tab in Partybuilder) is comprised of member blog posts as opposed to official staff posts. On a typical day there are 10 to 15 blog posts from users. This reflects a different philosophy about the role of users: The GOP site allows users to comment on official talking points, while Democrats.org gives users the ability to create their own talking points without the official stamp of approval.

What is a more important aspect of these sites, member participation or fundraising? Probably a little bit of both, but judging from the activity on Partybuilder, it would seem that the Democrats have the upper hand when it comes to user participation.

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