Email has become an increasingly popular and potent tool for political communication in America. Two-thirds of politically engaged Internet users during the 2002 election cycle sent or received email related to the campaign.
But campaigners said they had more success using the Net to communicate with the press than with citizens –an impression confirmed by online citizens, who said they did not find the political information they were looking for as often as online searchers for health and government information.
The steady, slow, and uneven maturation of online politicking is the principal theme of “Untuned Keyboards: Online Campaigners, Citizens, and Portals in the 2002 Elections,” a new report by The George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet (IPDI) and the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The report is being released at the Institute’s 10th Politics Online Conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2003.
For the political community, it was good news that the number of Americans who use the Internet to get political news and information grew 39% between the summer of 2000 and the 2002 midterm election, from 33 million to 46 million. But there remains considerable room for online campaigners to improve. Over 70 million Internet users have yet to be drawn into the online political arena. And the 46 million who did venture there often ended up frustrated.
“We found that campaigners increasingly appreciate the value of a good e-mail list,” said Dr. Michael Cornfield, IPDI Research Director. “But they haven’t come to grips with the new crafts of producing, promoting, and managing online content.”
The survey of online Americans showed that during the recent campaign, 66% of those who used the Internet for political activity sent or received campaign-related email and many used email for multiple purposes. By activity, the breakdown is:
34% of those who used the Internet for politics in 2002 used email to send and receive jokes about the campaign.
34% received email relating to campaign endorsements or opposition and 22% sent email related to their political references.
24% signed up for political e-newsletters
2% got or sent email relating to get-out-the-vote efforts
The survey also showed breakthrough success for interest-group and organizational Web sites, with 73% of those who use the Internet for politics last year saying they checked such organization sites for information. That includes:
57% of those who used the Internet for politics in 2002 went to Web sites that provided information about specific issues that interest them such as the environment, gun control, abortion, or health care.
49% used the Web to find out about endorsements or ratings of candidates by organizations or groups.
32% went to non-partisan sites such as those run by the League of Women Voters.
“Email and the Web are tailor made for political communication and voter mobilization, so it’s safe to say that every trend we’ve seen since 1996 will grow dramatically during the 2004 presidential election,” argued Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “In the next campaign, more people will use the Internet to get political information. Billions more emails will fly back and forth. The number of politically-related sites will proliferate. And fewer candidates will be behind the times online. Internet politics is moving from the toddler stage to something much more mature.”
Less clear for election 2004 are the involvement levels and roles to be played by the big Internet portals, such as AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, and the Web sites of news media organizations. The study found that in 2002, the big portals developed extensive sets of directories and tools for campaign and election activity, but did not feature them much on their home pages.
Some other key findings in the joint report and surveys:
40% of the nation’s 116 million online adults said they use the Internet to get political news and information. That comes to 46 million people, up from 33 million people in the summer of 2000.
22% of the nation’s Internet users said they went online specifically to get information about the 2002 campaign.
Impact of the Internet
29% of those who used the Internet for politics during the 2002 election said their Internet use was a very important source of information for them and 50% said it was a somewhat important source of information.
34% said information they found online made them decide to vote the way they did.
What online citizens did on the Internet
79% of those using the Internet for politics in 2002 sought information about candidate records
45% got information about candidate voting records
32% registered their opinions in online polls
30% got information about where to vote
10% of those using the Internet for politics in 2002 participated in online discussions about the elections
6% contributed to candidates
Why they went online for political news and information
52% of those who went online during the 2002 campaign said it was a convenient way to get information
32% said they used the Internet because they did not get all the news and information they wanted from traditional news sources.
b What races mattered to online citizens
78% of those using the Internet for politics in 2002 got information about governors’ races
68% got information about Senate races
64% got information about House races
56% got information about local races
43% got information about ballot measures and initiatives
b The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, independent research center that is fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine the social impact of the Internet.