By Jose Luis Jiménez, Fronteras Desk

SAN DIEGO — It’s conventional wisdom that Latinos will play a key role in the November elections, especially in the West. Democrats and Republicans are investing millions of dollars to get their message in front of these voters, especially through the Internet and social media.

How do you reach Latino voters? Find where they are gathering online.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama have posted Spanish-language videos on websites, which are constantly updated with new content. That is bolstered with robust operations on the popular social media platforms of Twitter and Facebook.

The race for the White House is already on overdrive in cyber space.

Campaigns understand the changing demographics in America. And technology has given them a new, high-tech tools to reach these voters.

David Karpf, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, in his new book The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, says campaigns can now target online groups with tailored messages as opposed to blasting an entire region with one ad.

“My guess is with regards to Hispanic voters in this election, there will probably be at least one campaign that tries to identify social media sites or websites that Hispanic Americans tend to go to,” Karpf says.

“And they’ll either buy advertising on those sites or they’ll buy targeted advertising for people who visit those sites. And that will be a way to reach them with your message in a way that they couldn’t before.”

The lower costs of Internet operations also give campaigns the flexibility to try different messages and quickly change strategy if it falls flat. 

“You can test out how one social media tool works vs. another, in terms of how voters respond after they heard one message versus the other,” Karpf says.

Ana Castro, a founding member of LATISM, an acronym for Latinos In Social Media, says the group's focus is to use online platforms to get Latinos to act.

“Our goal is to bring all the online engagement and turn them into concrete, offline, real actions that change lives,” Castro says.

Both political parties have invited bloggers from this online community to attend this summer's political conventions. The nonpartisan group plans to take it one step further by renting a home in each city near the site of the conventions.

The aim is to invite candidates and party insiders in for a chat with bloggers from all sides of the political spectrum.

By sitting down and talking to a Latino blogger, who will then share it with the audience, a politician can have his message shared as a more intimate conversation rather than a blast from a megaphone.

“If you want an audience, just get on the agenda, and we’ll make sure that you’re given a platform,” Castro says.

She believes Latinos are more likely to listen to a message from a trusted blogger or a friend than from an Internet ad or a note on Twitter.

The goal of campaigning on the Internet and social media is to get people to perform an offline activity: vote.

No one knows if that will happen.

Despite the focus on cyberspace, its impact on elections is murky at best. Political scientists have noted the increased use of online messages in recent campaigns and have found that it tends to reach younger voters who are paying attention.

But researchers have yet to find a direct link between viewing an online ad or reading a blog post and entering the voting booth, or switching parties.

Professor Karpf, who is moving to George Washington University, explains.

“Will this affect the outcome of the election? There is so much different activity going on, there’s so many different things happening at once, that, even today, it still remains pretty much impossible to tell how big of an impact it is having,” Karpf says.

With campaigns are squarely focused on using social media and the Internet to reach key groups, researchers are expected to study its impact. They may have some answers by the next presidential campaign.

Fronteras Desk is a collaborative project of public media entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.