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This millennial is steering the RNC's social media strategy

The tall task for RNC Digital Director Samantha Osborne: Getting the party's message to a fragmented GOP.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: RNC signage and balloons are seen on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicks off on July 18. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Samantha Osborne is in her element.

Just hours before the event begins, the 29-year-old digital director of the Republican National Convention is scanning Google Trends. Her eyes narrow when she notices Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, is being searched more than Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. Osborne's 90-person team, 80 of whom are volunteers, can capitalize on this.

"You have to stay on your toes," she said while crossing the room in black skinny jeans under a sporty black top. "You can't get too comfortable."

A lot is riding on Osborne's shoulders. Trump may be tied with Clinton, according to a recent CBS News-New York Times poll, but he remains a divisive figure. As recently as last week, a faction of the Republican Party was trying to block his nomination, and skepticism about Trump's candidacy remains.

Osborne is trying to bridge those divides. Her job is to marshal every digital resource available -- Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat -- to bring the fractured GOP together.

Republican bigwigs say Trump's mastery of social media will complement Osborne's efforts.

"I don't think you would see a Donald Trump candidacy without social media,"

former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told me Monday after making the rounds on the morning news shows. "You have to factor in Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat to begin to realize how much of an impact that social media has carried an outsider candidate in a way that traditional media never would have."

Samantha Osborne, digital director for the RNC, gets ready for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

Terry Collins/CNET

Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele told me pretty much the same thing.

"Agree or disagree, like him or not like him,

when his tweets hit, you have to read them and you're in that conversation

in a way you probably otherwise wouldn't be," Steele said of Trump's tweeting.

Osborne and her team work out of a trailer just behind Quicken Loans Arena and close to the media row that's been set up in the arena's parking lot. Google's YouTube service has a studio space there, and Twitter, Snapchat and Medium are lined up alongside traditional radio and TV stations.

It was Osborne's idea to weave the new media in with the old.

"The reason why we did this is to give them [new media] a footprint for more content opportunities," she told me hours before the convention was to begin. Media row and a backstage Digital Loft are places "where they can be creative to do that," she said.

Osborne and her online army are straddling the worlds of new and old media. Many Republican stalwarts still get their news through mainstream media, like television and newspapers.

But it's conservative millennials, the young Republicans like herself, that Osborne and her team want to win. Millennials, folks between 18 and 34, are the country's biggest living generation. The phone-toting cohort grew up with the internet and a fair number will be voting in their first election.

"A third of all registered voters aren't watching TV," Osborne told me in a phone conversation before I left for Cleveland. "That's the way media is changing, and you have to adapt to that," she said, explaining the emphasis on social media.

Osborne grew up in the Cleveland area, and the RNC is a sort-of homecoming for her. She graduated from Ohio State University -- her sunglasses bear the school's logo -- before joining Targeted Victory, a Virginia-based digital marketing firm that works on GOP campaigns. She later worked as a national deputy field director in Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid, helping coordinate its social media posts and website. She also managed Kim Simac's campaign for the Wisconsin state senate in 2011. (Simac lost.)

Osborne angled to get a position with the RNC convention when Cleveland was announced as host in January 2015.

"I just had to be here," she said. "Cleveland is a great city."

She became digital director in September and is now one of the highest-ranking digital operatives in the Republican Party.

Over the past 10 months, Osborne developed the official RNC app. It features 360-degree cameras that will live-stream the event gavel to gavel. She's monitoring its performance closely; it would be embarrassing if the app froze or went fuzzy.

People who have worked with Osborne say she's whip-smart and filled with boundless energy.

Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, recalls a 2009 Ohio initiative to authorize funding for the construction of four casinos in Ohio. The vote hinged on getting early and absentee voters to participate.

Beach says Osborne reached enough voters to help get the measure passed. He says it was a particularly impressive performance given it was during an off-year election.

"She did great," Beach said. "We eventually hired her the next year."

Still, Osborne faces an uphill challenge, according to politics watchers. No matter how smart the messaging, Trump will be a tough sell for a lot of people, they say, because he hasn't given much idea of what he'd do if elected.

"If he's going to win over some nondedicated 'Trumpers,' he needs to come up with solutions with some substance," said Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University. Trump also needs to explain how he'll re-energize the Republican Party, he said.

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Osborne will spend the next four days trying to make the case for the GOP.

On Monday morning, Osborne was checking out the Digital Loft, where a team from Instagram and Facebook will usher speakers after they leave the stage. Staffers will take a quick portrait of the speakers for Instagram and then lead them to a lounge where they will participate in a Facebook Live chat.

The Digital Loft is set up in a suite belonging to Dan Gilbert, whose NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers play in the arena.

"'I'm really excited to see how this comes out in the next four days," she said, before dashing off to a meeting. "It's a big challenge."

For more details on social media at the RNC, check out our interview with Twitter's head of news Adam Sharp.