Technology got its turn in the presidential campaign spotlight Tuesday, as the teams for both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney launched new smart phone applications.
Romney's application enticed downloads with the promise of being among the first to know who the former Massachusetts governor taps as his running mate, one of the last surprises left ahead of the November election (Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, gets first dibs).
"The Romney app is doing exactly what the Obama campaign did in 2008 with their text messages," says David Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "The app is a shinier interface, but it doesn't actually add anything as far as I can tell. The only thing that that app does is give you a push notification, which is basically a text message, letting you know when it's announced. That's exactly what the Obama team did."
Karpf says the application isn't novel, but should reap dividends.
"That said, it's a smart move, they are using excitement over who the VP pick is going to be to build their list," he says. "That gained huge numbers for Obama and it's probably going to be quite good numbers for Romney, too."
The Obama campaign unveiled an application designed to help volunteers organize, distribute campaign information and knock on doors. Karpf says the new Obama campaign app doesn't break much new ground either, but will have a greater impact than a similar one launched in 2008.
"The interesting thing about how it will be used in 2012 versus 2008 actually have very little to do with the Obama campaign and more to do with how we use iPhones now and how many of us have them," he says.
"There are things like when there's a big press story, you can click a button to retweet that. It's a smart way to push your social media edge a little bigger," Karpf says. "And there are also apps to make it easier to do volunteering, to make phone calls, to find a canvass map – and all of those tools are going to be more useful to the Obama field campaign this time than last time, not actually because the app has changed but because the uses have changed."
But the most innovative technology the campaigns are using is likely being kept under wraps and not launched to create a media buzz, he says.
"The tech that's not going to be a story is how did they develop voter lists and combine those with other demographic and online information about people in order to better microtarget them? Are they to get out the vote or to suppress the vote?" Karpf says. "That's stuff they are going to be working very hard on, but not letting us know anything about. My guess is that's where we are seeing lots of advances this time and several years later people like me will be trying to figure out exactly what happened."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.