WASHINGTON - From viral videos to selfies, listicles and "throwback Thursday" photos, candidates in the Nov. 4 midterm elections are leaving no social media stone unturned.
Where a 2010 gubernatorial or congressional campaign could proudly claim an active presence on Twitter as something almost fashion-forward, in 2014 a multifaceted digital strategy is seen as a prerequisite, even if little research exists to show how much online politicking translates into votes.
Virtually all candidates are on Twitter and Facebook. Some have Instagram accounts brimming with snapshots from the trail. Most raise money by email and many buy online ads.
At a fraction of the cost of traditional direct mail, phone calls and television advertising, online campaigning is already becoming a crowded field.
So politicians and their backers try to stand out.
Before campaigning for the 2014 elections started in earnest, supporters of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell filmed a then-trendy "Harlem Shake" video. In it, a McConnell-masked man dances alone and then is suddenly surrounded by thrashing costumed volunteers, some dressed as President Abraham Lincoln, Rosie the Riveter and a Republican-symbol elephant.
College Republicans filmed a spoof of TV reality show "Say Yes to the Dress" in which a woman chooses a wedding dress and a Republican governor, despite her mother's assertions that a less appealing dress, and a Democrat, are better.
Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat fighting to keep his Senate seat, snapped a "selfie" with former President Bill Clinton.
Charlie Baker, Republican candidate for governor of Massachussets, posted a "throwback" photo of himself at a 1979 Aerosmith concert, contributing to the popular social networking meme of posting old photos on Thursdays.
Iowa's Democratic Representative and Senate candidate Bruce Braley and Colorado's Democratic Senator Mark Udall joined other lawmakers posing for Instagram photos of themselves to endorse the "NOH8" ("no hate") campaign in support of same-sex marriage.
Alaska Democrat Mark Begich and the conservative group Americans For Prosperity produced dueling listicles, online articles structured as illustrated lists, on Buzzfeed: "8 Times Mark Begich Gave the EPA The 'Green' Light" and "The Koch Brothers and Alaska." Iowa Republican Senate hopeful Joni Ernst took YouTube by storm with perhaps the most memorable video of the cycle, an ad where she announces she "grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm" and would apply pork-cutting to Washington's spending to"make 'em squeal." Will Ritter, co-founder of Republican political ad firm Poolhouse Digital, said what stood out to him in this cycle was that web videos ceased being just a side-show for TV ads. "Instead of fighting for the hour and a half or two hours that (people) have at home to watch TV, why not pay attention to the time spent at work surfing the web or during the lunch break?" said Ritter.
One academic study found that 340,000 extra votes in the 2010 midterm elections were generated by a Facebook feature that reminded people to vote on Election Day and showed users photos of their friends who said they already voted. Facebook will bring back the feature this year in more than 10 languages.
But it remains unclear to what extent politicians' own social media antics translate into votes on Election Day. "It's not an exact science," said Ritter.