March 6, 2005

The internet and the 2004 election

WASHINGTON – The internet became an essential part of American politics in 2004. Fully 75 million Americans – 37% of the adult population and 61% of online Americans – used the internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in emails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or giving contributions to candidates. A post-election, nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press shows that the online political news consumer population grew dramatically from 18% of the U.S. population in 2000 to 29% in 2004. There was also a striking increase in the number who cited the internet as one of their primary sources of news about the presidential campaign: 11% of registered voters said the internet was a primary source of political news in 2000 and 18% said that in 2004. For campaign 2004, the overall figures related to uses of the internet for politics were:

  • 52% of internet users, or about 63 million people, said they went online to get news or information about the 2004 elections. We call them online political news consumers.
  • 35% of internet users, or about 43 million people, said they used email to discuss politics, and one of the most popular email subjects was jokes about the candidates and the election.
  • 11% of internet users, or more than 13 million people, went online to engage directly in campaign activities such as donating money, volunteering, or learning about political events to attend. “The last election was a breakout event for the internet,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and one of the authors of a new report entitled “The Internet and Campaign 2004.” “Every aspect of online politics grew quantitatively and many were wholly new – from the flood of online campaign contributions to rise of political bloggers, from Meetups to streaming JibJab.” The results come from a survey of 2,200 American adults between November 4 and November 22, 2004. The margin of error for the entire sample is plus or minus two percentage points. For the internet subsample of 1,324 people, the margin of effort is plus or minus three points. The new survey shows that for online Americans, the internet is now a more important source of campaign news and information than radio. For those with broadband at home (a group comprising 27% of the overall U.S. population) the internet rivals newspapers as a major source of campaign news and information: 38% of those with broadband at home cited the internet as a major source of political news, compared to 36% of them who cited newspapers. Many online political news consumers say the internet was important in giving them information that helped them decide their vote and that it made a difference in their voting decision.
  • 52% of political news consumers said the internet was important in giving them information that helped them decide how to vote.
  • 27% of them said the political information they got online made them decide to vote for or against a particular candidate.
  • 23% said their use of the internet for political news and activities encouraged them to vote. The survey documents increases in Americans’ use of the internet to participate in campaigns as well as to follow them. “Political activism surged in 2004, and activists turned to the internet more frequently than the general internet population,” said Michael Cornfield, Senior Research Consultant to the Project. Here is a list of some of the things people did related to online politics last year:
  • 34 million researched candidate positions on issues – a 42% increase from 2000.
  • 32 million people traded emails with jokes in them about the candidates.
  • 31 million went online to find out how candidates were doing in opinion polls.
  • 25 million used the internet to check the accuracy of claims made by or about the candidates.
  • 20 million got information about candidates’ voting records – an 82% increase from 2000.
  • 19 million watched video clips about the candidates or the election.
  • 18 million participated in online surveys about politics – a 50% increase from 2000.
  • 17 million sent emails about the campaign to groups of family members or friends as part of listservs or discussion groups.
  • 16 million people checked out endorsements or candidate ratings on the Web sites of political organizations.
  • 14 million got information on where to vote – a 180% increase from 2000.
  • 14 million signed up for email newsletters or other online alerts to get the latest news about politics.
  • 7 million signed up to receive email from the presidential campaigns.
  • 6 million participated in online political discussions or chat groups – a 100% increase from 2000.
  • 4 million signed up online for campaign volunteer activities such as helping to organize a rally, register voters, or get people to the polls on Election Day. More online political news consumers voted for Republican George W. Bush (53%) than voted for Democrat John Kerry (47%). However, in noteworthy ways, Kerry supporters in the internet population were more active in online politics than Bush supporters. For instance, Kerry voters were more likely to make online contributions, trade jokes in email, check for endorsements from interest group web sites, and register their opinion in online surveys. A companion commentary to the report reviews how the Bush, Kerry, and Howard Dean campaigns used the internet during the 2003-2004 election cycle. In addition, Kerry voters were more likely to say that the internet was important to them in giving them information that helped them decide their vote. Almost half of the Kerry voters (48%) who got political information online said the internet was important in providing material that helped them decide their votes, compared to 34% of Bush supporters. The Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press are initiatives of the Pew Research Center, a think tank that does public opinion surveys and generates other information in the public interest. They are non-profit and non-partisan and they do not advocate policy outcomes.