January 12, 2004

The Internet is playing a growing role in politics

WASHINGTON, D.C. January 12 – More than a third of the nation’s Internet users have gone online to get news and information, exchange emails about the race, or participate online in the current political campaign.

Even among wired Americans, the Internet still lags far behind television and newspapers as voters’ main source of political news. But the importance of the Internet continues to grow as it now rivals radio as a primary source of political information. Moreover, there is evidence that the early efforts by campaigns to engage voters through email have drawn an audience.

  • 22% of all Internet users have gone online to get news or information about this campaign. The figure equals the number who had done this during all of the off-year elections in 2002, so there is some reason to think that by the end of this campaign that many more Internet users will have gotten at least some news or information about the political races of 2004.
  • 18% of all Internet users have sent or received emails about the candidates or campaigns either from their acquaintances or from groups or political organizations.
  • 7% of all Internet users have participated in online campaign activities such as contributing to discussion groups, signing petitions, or donating money.

    These results come from a survey of 1,506 American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press and the Pew Internet & American Life Project between December 19 and January 4. Some 1,002 of them are Internet users. The margin of error on the sample is 3.5 percentage points for the Internet-user portion of the sample.

    Many online political enthusiasts have done all three types of activities online that were mentioned in the bulleted points above. So, at this early stage, 34% of online Americans have done some form of information gathering or more direct participation in politics via the Internet. This amounts to more than 40 million people. Of those 40 million active political users of the Internet:

  • 52% have gone online to look for more information about candidates’ positions on the issues.
  • 29% have used the Internet to find out about campaign organizations or activities in their communities. This represents more than 11 million people and includes those who have used online social networking sites like Meetup.com to connect to local supporters of candidates that appeal to them. Among the most likely to have used the Internet to find local organizations are young city dwellers.
  • 28% have visited Web sites set up by groups or organizations that promote candidates or political positions. Our previous research showed that growing numbers of Internet users are using sites set up by interest groups to gain information about the candidates they endorse or issue-positions that candidates hold.
  • 25% have been to candidate or campaign Web sites.
  • 13% have participated in political discussions through blogs or chat groups.

    At this early stage of the campaign, the most active and politically engaged Internet users are more liberal than conservative, more Democratic than Republican, and more likely to oppose President Bush than support him. This is especially true among those who have traded emails about the race with other individuals or political organizations. This is likely because there is an active race among Democrats for the party’s nomination, while Republicans already have their nominee in the President. It is likely the differences will narrow as the general election takes shape and as Republicans gear up their massive emailing operations.

    The general profile of these Internet users is that they are relatively more likely to be men, in their 30s and 40s, relatively well-to-do, well educated, suburban, and secular in their outlook.

    TV is still the tops – even with Internet users

    While there is great interest in the role of the Internet as a new tool to inform and mobilize voters, other media are far more important to Americans as they gather material related to politics. Even among Internet users, TV reigns supreme. Some 76% of all Internet users still say they get most of their news from TV. And the Internet even trails newspapers among Internet users (37% to 20%). Among Internet users, 20% say the Internet is the place they have been getting most of their news and 17% say radio is the place they have gotten most of their news.

    Internet users rely on big media companies for their news, rather than exclusively Internet-based news operations. Some 41% of Internet users get political news regularly or sometimes from portals like AOL; 38% get political news sometimes or regularly from the Web sites of major news organizations such as CNN and the New York Times; 10% get political news from online news magazine and opinion sites such as Slate.com.

    Internet users are more information hungry, as a rule, than non-Internet users. They are more likely to consult all kinds of media for information. Thus, Internet users who get political news are more likely than non-Internet users to get political information from cable news networks, their daily papers, talk radio, political talk shows, National Public Radio, print newsmagazines, C-Span, and comedy shows.

    Dean and the Internet

    The supporters of Democrat Howard Dean are not too different from all likely registered voters when it comes to getting news about the campaign, though they are somewhat more reliant on the Internet and less reliant on TV. Dean supporters enjoy politics than others, and cast their nets more widely for information, with the Internet more likely to be on Dean supporters” roster of resources than for others. In addition, Dean supporters are more likely than others to join online discussions about the campaign and more likely to visit Web sites that promote candidates or positions.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-partisan, non-profit organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to explore the social impact of the Internet.