A rising star of the 2008 presidential campaign, the Internet's role in the 2012 cycle is now more work horse than show horse – a reliable source of fundraising, a way for campaigns to connect volunteers to each other in order to drum up support, as well as a legitimate advertising tool.
And unlike four years ago, campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats up and down the ballot have embraced the medium as a fact of electoral life. While some were slow to catch on to the power of the Web, experts predict the Internet's role will only grow in future elections.
The Playing Field
Kate Kaye, managing editor at ClickZ and author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," said whereas John McCain's campaign didn't fully buy into the power of the Internet four years ago, Mitt Romney has gone all in.
"I'm seeing the campaigns using many forms of digital media—content, but also online advertising created for persuasion," she said during a panel discussion hosted by the Broadband Breakfast Club in Washington.
Romney's embrace of the Internet means both presidential candidates will, in some ways, be on even footing, despite the fact that President Obama has had the time and star power to amass far more Twitter followers or fans on Facebook, the two most popular social networks.
Ryan Meerstein, a senior political analyst at the online advertising company Targeted Victory, which is working with the Romney campaign, said the emphasis is on quality over quantity when it comes to Internet engagement.
"Look at how many people are engaging with our Twitter account compared to (Obama's), even though he has 10 times as many users as us," he said. "Look at how many people are engaging without Facebook compared to his, even though he has 20 times as many fans."
When it comes to spending money online, there are two types of advertisements: Those designed to harvest your E-mail address or enlist you as a volunteer and those meant to persuade you to vote for a certain candidate.
Stephen Geer, a partner at OMP, a D.C.-based direct marketing firm who was in charge of Obama's online and E-mail fundraising during the 2008 campaign, said about 10 percent of the Obama campaign's advertising budget was spent online last cycle, but he predicts campaigns to spend as much as 25 percent this cycle.
The increase is based on a couple of reasons, said Rob Saliterman, a senior account executive on elections and issue advocacy at Google.
"Search advertising is actually the most targeted way to reach people and to mobilize them," he said. "It's a very efficient use of the campaign's dollars because the campaign only pays for a search ad when someone actually clicks on it."
Ads are paired with search phrases on Google based on content, he added.
Another contributing factor to increased online advertising is the precipitous drop in cable television viewers.
"30 percent of people didn't watch live television last week," said Meerstein.
There are also tricks of the trade when it comes to maximizing the impact of social media. By highlighting a compelling speech passage via YouTube and sharing it on Twitter and Facebook, campaigns try and generate widespread interest so that people share the content among their friends, as opposed to have it forced upon them as an advertisement. This sort of pseudo-grassroots effort can pay dividends not only on its own, but as buzz builds, traditional media outlets often fall over themselves to cover the trend and ride the wave of interest.
Facebook even has teams of employees dedicated to directly working with campaigns in order to maxmize their impact on the network.
Social media can also make voter mobilization friendlier and more effective for campaigns, said Jamie Smolski, a Facebook representative working with the Romney team, because people are more likely to remind friends to vote instead of a stranger calling as part of a campaign.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.