05/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pew Survey Charts Amazing Surge in Role of the Internet in Campaign 2008

"The 2008 election was the first in which more than half the voting-age population used the internet for political purposes," a new report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, released late today, reveals. It also concludes, "Obama supporters were more active online than McCain supporters and online political users became more partisan in their information-seeking behavior."

Some 55% of all adults said they went online for news and information about the election or to communicate with others about the race. The percentage of Americans relying on the internet as a major source of campaign news more than doubled since the 2000 election (from 11% to 26%).

Obama backers took advantage of various emerging web activities - from text notifications to posting original content -- much more than McCain supporters, by roughly 3-2 or 2-1 margins. Fully 15% of Obama backers donated to his campaign online, compared with just 6% on the McCain side. My latest book, "Why Obama Won," anticipated these results, with its focus on the online arena.

The survey, indeed, found that social media platforms 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 surged in prominence:

* 45% of wired Americans watched videos online related to politics or the election.

* 52% of those with a social networking profile used their social network site for political purposes.

* One in five of all internet users (18%) contributed to the online political debate by posting original campaign-related content.

"Voters in 2008 were not just passive followers of the political process," said Aaron Smith, Research Specialist at the Pew Internet 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."

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.

More from the report follows.

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....

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.

Greg Mitchell's new book, "Why Obama Won," anticipated these survey results with major focus on the online angles.