This year, the Republican candidates have a different approach to the media. One thing that's changed: Television advertising is starting later than usual.
"It's not as though they're not making ads," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's just that so far we have not seen nearly as many of them on our TV sets."
But if voters aren't seeing ads on TV, they can see them on their computers. Web ads are easy to find — mostly, they're mashups of the candidates' comments from the debates, which have been the main event of the Republican race for the past two months.
In one ad, Rick Perry attacks Mitt Romney using his opponent's own words. "There are a lot of reasons not to elect me," Romney says in a clip from the ad.
And in his own ad, Romney takes aim at Perry's poor performance in the debates, showing the Texas governor stumbling over his words.
These Web ads won't get a guaranteed number of viewers the way television ads used to. But Thompson says they are useful for other reasons.
"It brings a lot of people who are already supporters to the site. They watch this stuff — hopefully they make contributions," he says. "If you put something up that gets a lot of attention, eventually those things get picked up by CNN and Fox News and MSNBC."
And that's free media. According to Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media — a website focused on how technology is changing politics — all advertising, along with outreach through social media like Facebook and Twitter, is being used by the candidates to build a community of supporters. Romney has been at it longer than Perry, Rasiej says, but that can change.
"Rick Perry may not be as effective as Romney at the moment," he says, "but over time, he will be more and more effective, because over several weeks and [as] television ads start to hit the airwaves, it draws more people to the Web, more people to sign up, more people to talk to each other, and eventually a community is formed."
And those communities built with the new tools of social media are guaranteed to be much bigger than they were four years ago, when there were 1.5 billion views of online videos that mentioned Obama or McCain in the title.
"So here we are three years later, and not only is there more bandwidth, there's much more comfort in the public and the use of technology," Rasiej says. "We are in [an] era of political news media on steroids. It's actually how those candidates use technology to get their message out and how their supporters leverage it in order to be able to spread it and to create traction for them that generates money and, in a virtuous circle, that gets people to the polls."
Take Herman Cain, who recently put up a series of quirky videos, including one starring his campaign manager, Mark Block.
"We've run a campaign like nobody's ever seen," Block says in the ad. "But then, America's never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. We need you to get involved, because together we can do this. We can take this country back."
Then Block takes a long drag on a cigarette and blows smoke directly at the camera — yep, cigarette smoke — which fades to the smiling face of Herman Cain. A little weird, but then again, Cain is leading the Republican pack. A CBS/New York Times survey released Tuesday shows Cain with 25 percent, Romney with 21 percent, and "undecided" coming in third.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.