Introduction and Summary
Campaign 2000 firmly established the Internet as a major source of election news and information. But as the audience for online campaign news has expanded — increasing fourfold over the past four years — it has gone more mainstream in its preferences and pursuits. A majority now cites convenience, not a desire to tap new or different information sources, as the main reason they go online for election news. Many more election news consumers gravitate to the online addresses of major news organizations and web portals than seek out specialized political sites or the candidates’ own sites.
Nearly one-in five Americans (18%) say they went online for election news during this year’s campaign, up from 4% who did so in the 1996 campaign. Fully one-third of the online population, which itself has grown dramatically over the past four years, got election news from the Internet. Veteran online users were far more likely to get election news than Internet “newbies”: 45% of those who have been online for at least three years used the Internet to access election information, compared to 17% of those who began going online in the past six months.
The Pew Research Center’s latest nationwide survey — conducted during October and November among 4,186 online users, in association with the Pew Internet & American Life Project — finds that election information draws more election news consumers than participation in online political activities. Nearly seven-in-ten of those who went online for election news sought out information on the candidates’ positions.
This information clearly had an impact: 43% of election news consumers say it affected their voting decisions, up from 31% in 1996. The effect of online campaign news has been particularly pronounced among young people. Fully half of online election news consumers under age 30 say the information they received made them want to vote for or against a particular candidate. Still, there has been no indication that the Internet is actually drawing more young people — or for that matter, more people of any age — into the political process. Controlling for other factors related to participation, Internet users are no more likely to be engaged in the political process, and show no greater propensity to vote than do non-users.1
Convenience is the Internet’s main appeal as a campaign news source. More than half of those who went online for election news (56%) cited convenience as their main reason for doing so, up from 45% in 1996. During that campaign, when the Internet had yet to fully emerge as a news medium, a majority of election news consumers (53%) said they went online because they weren’t getting all the news they wanted from traditional media; just 29% cited that factor in the current survey.
The online audience for election news has shown less interest in engaging in other political activities than it has in accessing political information. But the Internet is beginning to affect the way candidates and voters interact. A sizable minority of those who went online for election news (35%) registered their views in Internet political polls, while 22% used email to contact candidates and 5% made campaign contributions over the Internet.
Online Use Spiked at Campaign’s End
On a day-to-day basis, interest in online campaign news peaked around Election Day. Fully 12% of Americans went online for political news on November 7, and 18% went online the day after the election — a more than fourfold increase in the normal traffic for political news. The continuing drama of the post-election story and its fast-moving pace kept people online for election news in the week following November 7. Between 11% and 15% of all Americans followed the story online on any given day during this period.
The current poll was conducted as part of a larger effort to track Internet use over time. The Pew Internet & American Life Project has been conducting a daily tracking poll almost continually since March 1, 2000, measuring online usage. The level of campaign news consumption remained remarkably stable from March through October; during this period, roughly 3% to 5% of Americans got campaign news online on a typical day. This pattern was not influenced dramatically by important primary contests in March, nor by the conventions or the fall debates.