From the beginning of primary season, many voters seemed to have limitless interest in the twists and turns of the 2008 presidential and other races. This fascination manifested itself in numerous ways, from record numbers of citizens following election news and tracking the progress of the race to extensive waiting-lines on polling day caused by high voter turnout. This upswing in interest in the political process was inspired by many factors: a tightly-contested Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that extended well into the spring; an open Republican primary without an incumbent running for president; a general election featuring the first African-American major party candidate and one of the most well-known Republican Senators; a general election season that overlapped with the collapse of the housing market and banking sector; and a political climate in which there was widespread dissatisfaction among voters with the overall direction of the country.
Voters frequently turned to technology to help them stay up to date with campaign developments, express themselves politically and encourage others to vote for their candidate of choice. While usage of the internet for political purposes has been steadily growing over the last decade, the online political experience was qualitatively different this year than it was in 2000, 2004 or even 2006, as many social media features that were in their infancy during the previous presidential race had become commonplace by 2008.
A few examples: The percentage of internet users who visit online video-sharing sites rose from 33% in December 2006 to 52% in May 2008. Usage of social networking sites has nearly quadrupled over the past four years—from fewer than one in ten online adults in early 2005 to more than one in three today. Citizens are also increasingly talking to others and consuming news and information on the go, as more than six in ten Americans connect to the internet wirelessly or engage in non-voice data applications on their cell phone or personal digital assistant.
These two factors—increased interest in politics combined with greater opportunities for online political involvement—met head-on during the 2008 campaign. The result was an upsurge of political content, chatter and mobilization in various online venues. Put simply, voters in 2008 were not just passive followers of the political process. They also used a wide range of digital tools and technologies to get involved in the race, to harness their creativity in support of their chosen candidate, and to join forces with others who shared their same political goals and interests.
In this report, we look at the results of a national post-election survey that focused on the role that the internet and cell phones played in the 2008 race at all levels. In addition to updating participation in various online activities that we have tracked since the Project’s earliest political surveys in 2000, this survey examined the role of social media tools in an effort to place them in the context of the overall online political debate.