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GOP Sees a Friend in Facebook -- and Vice Versa

GOP Sees a Friend in Facebook -- and Vice Versa

By Erin McPike - July 18, 2011


Facebook has made an immeasurable imprint in national politics since Barack Obama utilized it in his run for president, and the social networking giant is taking steps to ensure Republicans get in on the action, too.

A steady stream of veteran Republican operatives has gone to work for the California-based website in recent months, and GOP politicians also have been flocking to its headquarters to learn more about how Facebook works. It's all part of a tacit admission by party members that they have seen the future, and it is online.

So far, Obama has swamped his potential Republican rivals for the 2012 presidential election in at least one statistic: The number of site users who have literally pressed a button to "like" him. He has 10 times more Facebook fans -- 22 million -- than the 10 declared GOP presidential candidates combined, who come in at 2.1 million. Obama also held a town-hall meeting at Facebook's headquarters in April, and way back in 2007, his campaign hired one of the site's co-founders, Chris Hughes, as part of his new-media team.

Now, the GOP is looking to catch up, and the company is happy to oblige. Five high-profile GOP strategists have joined Facebook's outreach team in recent months; they say one of their motivating factors is simply learning how it works so they can deliver that knowledge to their party's politicians.

Ted Ullyot, a former counsel to George W. Bush, is general counsel and a vice president at Facebook. His administration colleague Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff at the White House, is the vice president of U.S. public policy for the site. Also in the policy shop are Katie Harbath, a former Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee digital guru; Myriah Jordan, the former counsel to North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr; and Tucker Bounds, the national spokesman for John McCain during his 2008 presidential run.

"President Obama proved Facebook can be a very potent tool in elections," Kaplan said in an interview. He explained part of what attracted him to his current job: "Facebook is changing the way people are living their lives -- certainly in the public policy space."

Early 2011 saw a crush of stories in the media that detailed how far Republicans lag behind Democrats when it comes to online organizing and that questioned whether the GOP could catch up before the 2012 presidential election.

The only outlier was a common finding that Republicans on Capitol Hill were, by and large, faster than Democrats to embrace Twitter, the social networking site that allows users to communicate with the public in 140-character spurts.

That trend seems to suggest that the GOP isn't willing to cede every pixel to the opposition party. And Facebook is hoping to capitalize. Already a branding effort is under way at Facebook to turn the 2012 election into "The Social Campaign" by connecting candidates and campaigns to all of the site's networking mechanisms.

In fact, the Facebook job description for Harbath, who also clocked time at Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign as deputy e-campaign director, is to reach out to 2012 Republican candidates and help them better understand and utilize the site.

For their part, more and more GOP politicians (and former ones) have become proactive in visiting Facebook, too. President Bush visited the headquarters in November to promote his book. House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, a tech-savvy Californian, has also toured the Silicon Valley digs.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is eyeing a presidential run, headlined a Facebook event at the Austin-based South by Southwest festival earlier this year, and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch invited Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to Brigham Young University recently for a discussion about social networking and politics.

And recently, three GOP pols hit Facebook's Washington offices for instruction and discussions, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash and Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, the co-chair of the GOP's new media caucus.

As Kaplan put it, "The color of the site is blue, but the color of the company is purple." Republican pols are finally getting the hint.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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