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For Politicians, Instagram Is Cool, But Facebook Is Still King

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When it comes to politics, social media is no longer a secret weapon. On Nov. 4, more than 90 percent of the politicians vying for votes will be on Twitter and Facebook.

"The social media IQ of candidates has risen a lot since 2008," Nick Schaper, who served as director of digital media for House Speaker John Boehner from 2007 to 2011, told NBC News.

"They understand that it's a critical component for any serious campaign now," said Schaper, currently president of social media consultancy firm Engage. "This is no longer a gimmick."

The numbers speak for themselves. When it comes to both incumbents and challengers in the midterm elections, 92 percent of them are on Twitter, a company spokesperson told NBC News.

Every single incumbent is on Facebook, along with 94 percent of their opponents, a Facebook spokesperson told NBC News. A number of politicians — including Democratic Senators Corey Booker and Mark Begich — have learned to master the art of the selfie on Instagram.

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"You have to have a social media presence these days to be considered relevant," said Julia Smekalina, senior manager for political affairs at IMGE, a media consulting firm.

The consultancy displays endorsements from Texas Sen. John Cornyn and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, both Republicans. Every person interviewed for this story pointed to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 as a leap forward for social media in politics, but claimed that the Democratic Party and GOP are evenly matched on 2014's digital battlefield.

It turns out starting a Facebook or Twitter account these days is just the beginning.

Why politicians still "Like" Facebook

Feel like following Sen. Rand Paul on Snapchat? Go ahead! Like many users, politicians, including Republican Senators Joe Manchin and Richard Burr, experimented with (and then abandoned) Vine. And, of course, plenty are on Instagram.

Still, Facebook sits on top of the totem pole for a simple reason.

"Facebook has the most registered voters of any social media platform," Smekalina said. "Twitter is a big platform for influencers, reporters and politicos, but maybe less so for your regular voter."

"Instagram is a much smaller universe, but it does offer a unique and slightly different feel to your social campaign," she said.

For all the talk about attracting the young, it's still older voters that decide elections. Between 2008 and 2012, voter turnout among 18-to 24-year olds fell from 48.5 percent to 41.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while voter turnout for those over 65 years old rose from 70.3 percent to 71.9 percent.

That makes Facebook — which, despite all the talk of an impending decline, is still popular with all age groups — a more attractive target than the younger crowd that favors Instagram and Snapchat..

"If the audience is younger than 18, it doesn't matter, because they can’t vote," said Paul Levinson, communications professor at Fordham University.

Facebook and Twitter also give campaigns more control, he said, mainly because words can be carefully crafted to promote a candidate while images are more open to interpretation.

"The old saying, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words?’ That’s not the case when trying to convince someone to vote for your candidate," Levinson said.

Converting clicks to votes

Starting a Facebook or Twitter account is just the beginning. Amassed a huge following? Good, but smart campaigns need to know how to shepherd those digital supporters to the polls, Smekalina said.

"It’s not enough nowadays to share a graphic and say, 'Go vote!'"

Ideally, people should be directed to pages where they can look up polling places and how to register to vote —all with the candidate's smiling face looking on.

Using information gathered by Facebook, Google and other third parties, as well as a campaign's own internal data, targeted ads can save candidates money by only going after likely voters.

"If someone has visited your website, we can identify that and then follow them on the Web with an ad," Smekalina said.

With only a week to go, campaigns are less concerned with growing their social media presence than getting the followers they do have to vote and convince their friends to vote.

In tight races in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa, that can make a big difference. In a 2012 experiment, published in the journal 'Nature,' a single Facebook message generated more than 300,000 votes across the country.

As more politicians realize the power of social media, there will be fewer contests between tech-savvy candidates and Luddites, according to Levinson.

"It won't be a question of how candidates use social media, but what candidates are saying on social media, and I think that’s good for the democratic process."

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