Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Internet’s Role in Campaign 2008

Washington, DC, April 15, 2009 – The 2008 election was the first in which more than half the voting-age population used the internet for political purposes. Some 55% of all adults – and 74% of all internet users — said they went online for news and information about the election or to communicate with others about the race.

This is among the findings of a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which also found that social media platforms such as blogs, social networking sites and video-sharing sites played a key role in 2008 as voters went online to share their views with others and try to mobilize them to their cause. Among some of the key activities and technologies that grew in prominence in the election:

  • 45% of wired Americans watched videos online related to politics or the election. Young adults led the way in their online video consumption, as nearly half of all 18-29 year olds (internet users and non-users alike) watched online political videos this election cycle.
  • 33% of internet users shared digital political content with others—whether by forwarding political writing or multimedia content over email, or by sharing information with others through other online mechanisms.
  • 52% of those with a social networking profile used their social network site for political purposes.

And a distinctive cohort of online political participants emerged during the election as almost a fifth of internet users (18%) contributed to the online political debate by posting original campaign-related content in an online forum such as a blog, online discussion group or social networking site.

“Voters in 2008 were not just passive followers of the political process,” said Aaron Smith, Research Specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the Project’s new report on these findings. “They 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.”

As voters increasingly go online to stay politically informed, the importance of the internet relative to other political news sources has also grown more prominent. The percentage of Americans relying on the internet as a major source of campaign news has more than doubled since the 2000 election (from 11% to 26%). For younger Americans and those with a high-speed home internet connection, the internet far outpaces newspapers, magazines and radio as a major source of campaign news.

At the same time, online citizens have become more partisan in their political browsing. One-third (33%) of online news consumers say they typically seek out online political information from sites that share their political point of view, up from the 26% who said that at a similar point in 2004. While the largest increase on this measure occurred among the young, those who are the most information hungry and engage most deeply in the online political debate also show an increased tendency to seek out political information that matches their existing point of view.

With respect to the electoral story, online supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama tended to be more intensely engaged with the online political debate than supporters of Republican John McCain. For example, 26% of wired Obama supporters posted their own original political content in an online forum, compared with 15% of online McCain voters. Obama supporters were also more likely to take part in the following online political activities:

  • Share political content online (21% vs. 16%).
  • Sign up to receive automatic updates about the election (18% vs. 9%).
  • Contribute money online to a campaign or candidate (15% of online Obama supporters and 6% of online McCain supporters did this).
  • Get campaign-related news alerts sent to them via email (12% vs. 8%).
  • Sign up online for campaign-related volunteer activities (11% vs. 4%).

“The 2008 elections saw the role of the internet in politics increase and it witnessed the emergence of a unique group of online political activists,” said Smith. “Compared with other internet users, these individuals delve more deeply into the political news of the day, and take part in a much wider range of online political activities. At the same time, these online activists show a greater interest in news and information with an explicitly partisan slant—particularly when compared with those who use the internet as a purely information-gathering device.”

In addition to going online to make sense of the campaign, voters also used digital technologies to help navigate the voting process itself. One in five (18%) wired voters went online to find out where to vote, 16% did so for information about early or absentee voting, and 9% went online to find out whether they were registered to vote in their current location. Led by young adults, voters also used digital technologies to share their experiences at their polling place via email, text messaging and social media tools such as blogs, social networking sites and Twitter.

This report is based on a survey of 2,254 adults conducted between November 20, 2008 and December 4, 2008. The overall sample has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points. Some 1,591 in this sample are internet users and the margin of error in that cohort is three percentage points.

Media contact: Aaron Smith, Research Specialist, Pew Internet Project, 202-419-4516

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information