Web use in 2008 political campaigns shattering records in U.S.

Americans increasingly turn to Web, particularly for unfiltered campaign, candidate data

Fueled by increased viewing of online political videos and the use of social networks to gather campaign data and online donations for candidates, use of the Internet in this year's election cycle is shattering records, according to a study released this week (download PDF).

A record-breaking 46% of Americans have used the Internet, e-mail or cell phone text messaging to get news about a campaign or to share their views, according to the "The Internet and the 2008 Election" report compiled by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. So far, according to the report, supporters of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are using online tools for election matters more often that those of rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

At this point in the 2004 election cycle, 31% of Americans had used the Internet to get political news and information. The report noted that the difference between the elections is more than the total number of Americans who used the Internet during the entire 2004 campaign for political information, according to Pew Internet & American Life. "Moreover, the proportion of Americans getting political news and information on any given day in the spring of 2008 has more than doubled compared with a similar period in 2004," the report said.

After the 2004 race, for example, 13% of adults said they had watched an online video of any kind about the campaign or election. This year, 35% of the 2,200-plus Internet users surveyed reported that they watched an online political video.

At this point in the current campaign, 8% of Internet users have donated money to a candidate online; only 3% of Internet users said they had done this when asked in the fall of 2006. In addition, 10% of users said they have used a social network such as Facebook or MySpace.com to gather political information or to become involved with a campaign.

Among younger votes, two-thirds of Internet users younger than 30 have a social networking profile, and half of those said they use social networks to get or share political information, the report said.

Further, 39% of Americans online have used the Internet to access "unfiltered" campaign materials like video of candidate debates, speeches and announcements or candidate position papers. The study also found a significant growth of user-generated content in comparison with the first time Pew asked this type of question in the 2006 midterm elections.

For example:

  • 11% of Americans have forwarded or posted someone else's commentary about a political race.
  • 5% have posted original commentary or analysis.
  • 6% have donated money to a candidate or party online.
  • 12% of 18-to-29-year-olds online have posted their own political commentary or writing to an online newsgroup, Web site or blog.

Obama was an early supporter of Web 2.0 technologies, and that effort appears to be paying off, according to the study. In a head-to-head match with McCain, Obama supporters are more likely to sign an online petitions (18% compared with 11% of McCain supporters), sign up to receive e-mails from the candidates or campaigns (17% vs. 8%), contribute money online (13% vs. 5%), post their own commentary (8% vs. 4%) and volunteer online for activities related to the campaign.

More online Republicans (66%) than online Democrats (58%) are likely to say that the Internet is full of misinformation that voters believe to be accurate, Pew noted. However, Democrats online are more like to say the Internet helps them feel more connected to the candidates they support.

Alan Rosenblatt, a blogger at TechPresident, noted that the study underscores the importance of not asking whether the Internet will ever elect a president. Instead, voters and candidates should accept the fact that candidates can no longer afford to downplay the importance of the Internet to their campaigns.

"The report makes clear that previous expectations about voter attention and behavior are no longer certain predictors of future elections," Rosenblatt noted. "Though we are still four and a half months from the election, voter attention to it already rivals levels expected in October, based on past experience. Not only do voters use the Internet to learn about the candidates and the issues, but they are [also] sharing it with others. This is most important. It means that what people learn on the Internet influences nearly everyone in the country."

The report highlights that Obama's efforts to use the Internet to reach out to voters -- especially young voters -- "are paying off huge," he added. "They are spreading the word online, donating money and voting in droves; all things that political scientists have long predicted wouldn't happen," Rosenblatt said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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