The websites for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney look practically the same: sleek, snazzy, red-white-and-blue. But peel back a layer, and there's a difference -- the fundamental difference, in fact, between how Democrats and Republicans use technology.
Obama's site was custom-built starting in 2008 by the consulting firm Blue State Digital. It's a fully integrated platform for everything from fundraising to social networking -- the Rolls-Royce of campaign tech, complete with price tag. Romney's interface, on the other hand, didn't even originate with the campaign; it was based on a platform purchased off-the-shelf from a corporate customer-service vendor called Salesforce.com, then modified (also starting in 2008) to meet the needs of a political campaign.
In short, Team Obama has home-grown its tools, while Team Romney has bought commercial products and taped them together. But both approaches are labor-intensive and hugely expensive, and neither approach is really optimal. One requires devoting a big chunk of the campaign's energy to essentially functioning as a tech start-up; the other requires settling for off-the-shelf tools that don't have politics in their DNA.
Now, two visionary geeks want to change that.
Joe Green and Jim Gilliam, the founders of a new software platform called NationBuilder, envision a world where any campaign -- from local school board to issue-based protest movement, without regard to ideology -- could access the same versatile, inexpensive suite of software and instantly have at its fingertips the ability to connect with voters and donors online, a capacity that was supposed to reshape American politics in the age of the Internet, but has yet to be fully realized.