But if you're focusing on the spending alone, you're missing the point. Never mind that the $73 million expected for this year is a 152% increase over the $29 million spent four years ago.
Amount expected to be spent on online advertising this cycle across all elections
$210 MILLIONAmount already spent on national TV in the presidential primary alone.
Amount raised (mostly online) by Barack Obama in February 2008
$40 MILLIONAmount raised online by Howard Dean in the 2004 race
But that's not to say the dramatic changes this year aren't apparent in different measures.
In 2003 and 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean fueled his quest for the Democratic nomination by raising $40 million in internet donations in one year. Sen. Barack Obama's campaign recently announced that in February alone it raised $55 million, mostly in internet donations.
Then there's the YouTube yardstick. Founded in February 2005, YouTube didn't exist in the last presidential campaign. As of last week, Mr. Obama's official channel had 788 videos, including one viewed 1.32 million times. It wasn't the extremely popular viral created by Will.i.am but rather Mr. Obama's response to President Bush's State of the Union address.
Sen. Hillary Clinton's official channel had 298 videos, including the "3 a.m." spot, which that had been viewed 824,000 times. Sen. John McCain's official channel had 171 videos, and the most popular had been viewed 315,000 times. Rep. Ron Paul's channel had 127 videos; the most-viewed clocked more than 900,000 views.
Finally, there are the peer-to-peer sites, which range from candidates' own efforts, such as McCainSpace and my.barackobama.com, to platforms on other sites such as MySpace, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. They allow supporters to talk to each other, coordinate efforts to increase turnout at caucuses and raise money.
"The internet has not totally usurped the power of television, but it has changed the way campaigns are run," said Joe Trippi, Mr. Dean's campaign manager in 2004 and a senior strategist for former Sen. John Edwards' efforts this year.
Nicco Mele, who created Mr. Dean's website four years ago and is co-founder of Echo Ditto, said the web is now a little less experimental.
"Last time, we had little idea of what we were doing, and a lot of the innovation was volunteer-driven. ... This time there are more established strategies. ... It's not as blank a slate."
Indeed, one of the reasons it's difficult to declare a digitally superior candidate this time around is because almost all of the candidates have embraced Web 2.0 in some shape or form. All that focus on community plays into the strengths of the web -- and also explains why so many insist the web (and online spending) shouldn't be compared with TV.
"TV is an advertising medium. The web is campaign headquarters extraordinaire," said Mindy Finn, a GOP strategist who headed the digital effort for Mitt Romney.
The dramatic impact of the web is perhaps most visible in the campaigns of Democratic front-runner Mr. Obama and Republican also-ran Mr. Paul.
There is no mystery to the Obama campaign story. In essence, it's Product Marketing 101. Mr. Obama is a strong product answering a market need with a clear branding proposition. Mock "change" all you want, but the candidate's obviously touched a nerve. His fundraising approach has paid off in droves, and despite the conventional wisdom about Mr. Romney, it's the Obama campaign that's spent the most on advertising. Mr. Obama also benefited greatly from "pro bono" viral efforts by professionals and celebrities.
Mr. Paul's campaign, on the other hand, was short on money and unable to mount a campaign website with all the bells and whistles initially used by rivals. Instead, the Republican turned to his supporters for help and ended up with many of the same features of other campaigns -- without paying for them.
Justine Lam, Mr. Paul's e-campaign director, said the campaign had about $500,000 to produce a website -- about half what it would have needed for social-networking capability -- so it chose to rely on other sites.
In taking the decentralized approach, the campaign gave up a key tool: its ability to fully coordinate efforts. Federal campaign-finance rules bar campaigns from coordinating efforts with those outside the campaign. That meant the campaign could list its needs, but it was up to its supporters whether they would be fulfilled and how quickly. The good news was the support came in for free.
And while Mr. Paul lost, all this allowed him to remain in the race much longer than expected. (It also allowed him to lease a blimp.)
It sounds much like something from an advertising conference: Give consumers a little control, and they will become more invested in the brand.
That's not to understate the massive impact a 30-second spot (and other aspects of TV) has on a campaign's fortunes. TV, after all, is still the only way to reach the millions of people who only get interested in politics three days before the election and those who don't spend massive amounts of time on the web (yes, such people exist).
Michael Cornfield, a professor in political management at George Washington University, said, "If you want exposure and branding, then you are wasting it spending on online advertising." He added that the field is still in the "prehistoric era," awaiting change.
Mark Walsh, CEO of Genius Rocket, said internet advertising is unfairly judged with far more scrutiny than TV ads, but predicted the dam would break.
"As fundraising goes, advertising will follow. The campaigns are more change-resistant on advertising, but the fundraising success will get the message through."