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Tech the Vote: 2016 Candidates Go All-In on Digital to Reach Voters

Presidential candidate Rand Paul asked the question, "How Would You Kill the Tax Code?" in an interactive YouTube video. Rand Paul via YouTube

Presidential candidates are deploying a veritable toolbox of digital gadgets and gimmicks to break through to voters whose attention is spread across more devices, screens and news sources than ever before.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders stopped in Van Nuys, California for a fundraiser in late June, the Vermont lawmaker’s event was filmed with a 360-degree camera by Virtuality Lab, which then posted the video to YouTube.

That’s just one of the ways that presidential hopefuls are using a wider range of technology to get their message in front of voters. This election cycle, Reuters estimates that candidates will spend $1 billion on digital media advertising, about four times as much as in 2012. And nearly six months out from the primary, a full 80 percent of the declared 2016 presidential candidates are creating custom video for YouTube, as opposed to simply uploading their 30-second TV commercials, the Google-owned video website said.

2016 Presidential Candidates Crowd New Hampshire Campaign Trail 3:11

It’s a strategy campaigns will likely be forced to adopt, whether they want to or not. YouTube on mobile alone reaches more 18-to-49-year-olds than any single cable network, and a Pew study found that 61 percent of millennials get their political news from Facebook.

"One of the powerful things about VR is the sense of presence and connection with human beings that you can accomplish with the medium," said Vrideo co-founder and CEO Alex Rosenfeld. His virtual reality platform is hosting the Sanders clip along with YouTube. "Candidates are trying to connect with voters and trying to differentiate themselves. I ... never have been to a campaign speech, but the ability to put on a headset and see a well-known candidate makes me feel like I'm there."

While the shoot was not commissioned directly by his campaign—Sanders' team was approached by Virtuality Lab—campaign digital director Kenneth Pennington said it was "absolutely" interested in doing more VR footage at similar events.

"Reaching millennial voters who are increasingly disheartened by our corrupt billionaire-backed political system is a major goal for this campaign," Pennington said.

For the most part, digital media platforms are free to use. However, if you want to target specific voters and advertise—and you want the company to hold your hand and give you best practices on how to maximize your impact on the platform—you're going to need to pay. And, while there was digital media advertising during the 2012 election, the scope of what these companies can do now and how they can target consumers has reached the next level.

Facebook, for example, rolled out an ad product in 2013 that allowed politicians to match voter files to Facebook profiles. Direct messages can be sent to these selected users.

"It's about getting the right slice of voters at the right time with the right message to direct the right outcome," Facebook policy communications manager Andy Stone told CNBC.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the last presidential race and 2016, technologically speaking, is the growth of digital video, particularly on mobile. According to Nielsen, 85 percent of millennials ages 18 to 24 and 86 percent between 25 and 34 own smartphones.

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"The adoption of video and as close to real-time video and now live video is another vehicle for us to provide more impactful communication with people," said SS+K digital strategist for technology Kevin Skobac. SS+K advised the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, but is not currently working with 2016 candidates.

"Whether or not it ends up ultimately making a difference, one: We think it can make a more meaningful experience, and two: From a media perspective, it can cut down the news cycle."

Instead of slickly produced content, politicians are using raw, live footage and poised-to-go-viral ideas. Forget montages and fades: Sen. Ted Cruz has cooked bacon on the barrel of a gun, while Sen. Lindsay Graham blended a smartphone.

Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign is using SnapChat to connect with younger voters, the same 18 to 24-year-olds that constitute the average visitor to his website, according to Paul’s chief digital strategist, Vincent Harris. A robust presence on Google and social media could shape how voters perceive a candidate, even after a more traditional campaign event like the GOP debate to be broadcast Thursday by Fox News.

"The Internet is a trusted source of information," Harris said. "After the debates, they're going to be Googling each phrase, they're going to be Googling facts. They're going to be searching on YouTube for these candidates."