Good luck opening Facebook or Twitter these days without seeing something from candidates vying for your vote in November's election.
With social media playing an ever-larger role in everyday life, campaign teams see these channels as a fast, free and easy way to get their messages out. They regularly post videos, commentary, links to press releases and take jabs at their opponents.
Even if you don't "friend" or "like" any candidate on Facebook or "follow" them on Twitter, one of your friends probably does.
But even as social media drives the election chatter, it remains largely ineffective at winning the minds of undecided voters, political strategists say.
Votes are still won through old-school channels - TV and radio ads, mailers and knocking on doors.
"Its role is really best suited for mobilizing people that are already supporting a particular candidate to go out and get that candidate elected," said David Steele, a political strategist in Tucson.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of adult Americans use social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+ - but only a quarter consider these sites important for discussing political issues or recruiting people to get involved in a cause.
Even though they encounter plenty of political activity while browsing friends' profiles and news feeds, only 16 percent said they have changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading a post on social networking sites.
"Keeping in touch with friends and family is by far the main reason why most people use social networking sites," said Aaron Smith, co-author of the study and senior research specialist with the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.
A social media plan is essential to any successful campaign, but it's no magic bullet.
"It's not a wise strategy to rely on social media to persuade undecided voters," said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic political strategist. "But it is a good tool to talk to your supporters and hopefully they amplify your message."
Tweets, FaceBook posts
The familiar icons of the social media giants - Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - can usually be found prominently positioned on a candidate's Web page.
Whether running for president or county board of supervisors, any viable candidate now has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and strong presence across all the digital platforms, such as YouTube.
"You ignore it at your own peril," said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It is a key component to getting your message out and communicating with both voters and decision makers."
Candidates keep their feeds lively, often with several posts a day. In addition to the standard announcements of endorsements, TV ads and campaign events, they also weigh in on news of the day.
"So, President Obama tells a Univision audience that he has learned that 'you can't change Washington from the inside,' " Jeff Flake, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, wrote on his Facebook page this week. "Curious statement, coming from someone seeking a second term. How 'bout we elect someone who hasn't already thrown in the towel?"
Candidates often use the sites to promote favorable polls, positive news stories or other accomplishments.
"Thanks to your efforts, we've raised more than $51,000 online in just the last week," wrote Richard Carmona, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, on his Facebook page. "The average donation was $70 - and that tells me our strategy of leaning on grassroots donors over secret money and Super PACs is working … I don't think there's any doubt now that we have the momentum."
Facebook is increasingly used to post longer commentary or post pictures. Twitter, which has a 140-character limit, is used to post links or for quick jabs.
Spokespeople and supporters of candidates often engage in what have become known as "Twitter wars," trading snarky barbs about an issue or something a candidate has done or said.
After a story came out in which Republican U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl admitted that Republicans once tried to recruit Carmona to run for office, Carmona's supporters deluged Flake supporters with Tweets that efforts to paint Carmona as a 'rubber stamp' for Democrats were bogus.
Carmona's spokesman Tweeted: "Flake's attacks look pathetic in light of the fact that AZs top Rs wanted @carmonaforaz to run for Congress and Gov."
Flake's spokesman shot back: "@CarmonaForAZ never ran for office as a Republican because it turns out he is liberal."
Also, many candidates have their own "channels" on YouTube that host collections of TV ads, and Web videos touting their campaigns.
Before Facebook and Twitter, a campaign would send out a press release by having interns fax it around. Now, interns post the full version on the campaign website, with a link to it on Twitter and shortened version on Facebook, McLeod said.
TV ads, mailers still big
For raising money, connecting with media, and enlisting and mobilizing volunteers, social media is effective.
But winning the votes that often decide close races means getting your candidate's message in front of people who aren't actively seeking political news and information, strategists say.
People have to choose to follow candidates on Twitter or Facebook, meaning most followers are already supporters.
"If somebody is undecided, it's not like they get up in the morning and say, "I better go like all the candidates (on Facebook)," said McLeod, the Democratic strategist. "The hard part of reaching undecided voters is getting their attention in the first place."
That's why candidates still spend huge chunks of their campaign coffers to buy TV ads. A 30-second spot that comes on between a popular show watched by a wide cross section of people, such as "American Idol," is a better investment than driving home your message with in-the-bag supporters.
In the tightly contested Congressional District 1 race between Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick and Republican Jonathan Paton, national party committees have already spent nearly $1 million on TV ads.
Mailers also remain popular ways to try to reach undecided voters. Most people go to the mailbox and browse through their mail. That gives a political mailer at least a fighting chance to get read by somebody not actively seeking out political material, political strategist Steele said.
For him, the secret weapon isn't high tech, but no tech.
"With all the clutter in the messaging marketplace," Steele said, "direct mail is still the most effective tool."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BradyMcCombs.
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