5.2 How does the web affect people’s voting decision?Quite a few relevant studies focusing on audiences’ use of blogs and the Internet in general, both in the 2006 midterm election and in the 2008 presidential campaign, were released and commented on in blogs and news articles during the research period of this study.
The following section will examine these studies and look at how voters use blogs and websites to retrieve political information and engage in political activities during campaigns and elections. The surveys that will be discussed, all which are American based, are:
• A survey conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project released January 2007, focusing on the Internet’s role in the 2006 midterm election. The study is based on a random sample of 2,562 adults, aged 18 and older (Rainie 2007). • A survey conducted by Performics released February 2007, aiming to assess the role of the Internet in the 2008 U.S. presidential election (2008). The survey is based on a telephone survey among a random sample of 1,014 adults (Performics 2007). • A survey conducted by Burst Media released March 2007, looking at the Internet’s role in the 2008 U.S. presidential election (Burst Media 2007) • A survey conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Centre of Ohio University released August 2006, briefly describing how Americans read blogs. The survey is based on a random sample of 1,010 U.S. adult residents (Hargrove & Stempel 2006) • A survey of prospective voters’ opinions of campaign websites in the 2008 U.S. presidential election conducted by Gomez Inc. April 2007, using a demographically representative sample of the U.S. population (Gomez Inc. 2007).
5.2.1 How do voters read and use the Internet in relation to elections? Pew Internet and American Life Project found that the number of Americans citing the Internet as the source of most of their political news and information had doubled since the last midterm election (2002). According to the study: “31% of Americans – more than 60 million people – used the internet for political purposes in campaign 2006” (Rainie 2007, p. 9). As many as 15 percent of all American adults said the Internet was their primary source for campaign news during the election compared to 7 percent in 2002 and 18 percent in the 2004 presidential election (Rainie 2007).
Performics stated in a media release dated February 21, 2007, that they had found that “42 percent of Americans say the Internet will play an important role in deciding who they will vote for” in the 2008 presidential election (Performics 2007). Not surprisingly Performics found that reliance on the Internet for political information is very strongly related to age (Performics 2007). The respondents citing that they used the Internet for political information were from 88 percent among 18-34 year olds to 25 percent among Americans 65 and older.
Data presented in this section indicates that especially younger voters have a fairly strong reliance on what they read online. They also confirm that more voters are taking to the web to retrieve information about candidates and elections.
5.2.2 How do voters value the information they retrieve from the Internet compared to other mediums? Not surprisingly Pew Internet and American Life Project found that television still outranked other media when it comes to where people retrieve their news about elections (Rainie 2007):
“Fully 69% of all Americans said they went to the television for most of their news about the campaign – twice the proportion of those who cited newspapers (34%), four times the proportion who singled out radio (17%) and the internet (15%)” (Rainie 2007, p. 7).
“Even for internet users (not the public as a whole), television and newspapers outpace the internet as a campaign source. Among America’s 136 million adult internet users 66% say television was their main source of political news in 2006 and another 31% cite newspapers. That compares with the 22% of internet users who cite the internet itself as their main source of campaign news” (Rainie 2007, p. 7).
The Performics survey, focusing on the Internet’s role in the 2008 campaign, supports these findings: stating that television news, talk shows, news radio and local and national newspapers still are the primary means for people searching information about campaigns and candidates (Performics 2007).
On the contrary, TechPresident (All 2007) and MediaPost Publications (O’Malley 2007) reported April 10-11, 2007, that a most recent released survey by Burst Media (2007) looking at the Internet’s role in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, had found that voters are relying on the web more than any medium to research candidates and their positions. Burst Media (2007) states that:
“One-quarter (25.0%) of likely voters cite the Internet as the best place to learn about a candidate’s position on election issues or to research general election issues. Other election resources include; television (21.3%), newspapers (17.3%), radio (6.9%), magazines (4.4%), and pamphlets/ brochures/direct mail (3.3%)” (Burst Media 2007).
But Burst Media are contradictory in regards to the sample used in the survey. In one paragraph the study states that it surveyed “2,100 online users who are likely to vote in the 2008 Presidential election”, while it in another paragraph states that it surveyed “2,100 likely voters about their use of candidate and issue advocacy group’s websites, and their actions when confronted with a candidate or issue advocacy group’s online advertisement” (Burst Media 2007). The author of the current study sent several emails to Burst Media in an attempt to clarify the methodology used in the study without getting any response. Without knowing whether the study used a random sample or only surveyed online users, a generalization will have little value. We will therefore have to assume that the study based its findings on a population of online users. Comparing the data from the Burst Media survey to the data from the surveys conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project and Performics, this seems to be a relevant assumption to make.
The data presented in this section is interesting. While we not surprisingly find that voters in general rely more on the information they retrieve from traditional media than what they view online, we find, by comparing the data retrieved by Pew Internet and American Life Project to the data retrieved by Burst Media, that online users seem to rely more on the information they retrieve from the Internet in the 2008 campaign than they did in the 2006 election.
5.2.3 How do voters read and use blogs in relation to elections? Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 20 percent of the 60 million Americans that said they retrieved information about the 2006 election from the Internet stated that they got news and information about the campaign from blogs (Rainie 2007, p. 15). The report states:
“Those with relatively high levels of education and high levels of household income were particularly drawn to blogs as were campaign internet users in their 30s and their 50s. Blogs held special force with those who used the internet to get political news and information from places outside their communities” (Rainie 2007, p. 15).
A more general survey conducted by Scripps Survey Research Centre of Ohio University found that: “nearly a quarter of young adults say they read blogs at least once a week, compared to just 3 percent of people 65 or older” (Hargrove & Stempel 2006). When asked: “How many days each week do you get news from a blog on the Internet?”, “[e]ighty-eight percent of respondents said they never use blogs to get news, 7 percent said they read blogs four days a week or less and 5 percent said they read them five days a week or more” (Hargrove & Stempel 2006).
The data presented in this section shows that the number of voters visiting blogs during an election is not exceedingly high. It clearly makes it evident, however, that it is young educated adults that are the main demographic group that retrieves information about politics from blog.
5.2.4 How do voters read and use websites in relation to elections? Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 20 percent of the 60 million Americans that said they retrieved information about the 2006 election from the Internet also stated that they got news and information about the campaign from websites created by candidates (Rainie 2007, p. 15). The report states:
“These sites were disproportionately used by civically-engaged young voters and voters who felt that the internet is a good source of information that is unavailable elsewhere. They were also important to people who see the internet as a place to get local perspectives” (Rainie 2007, p. 15).
21 percent of campaign Internet users, or 13 percent of the entire adult population, stated that they viewed videos online about the campaign (Rainie 2007, p. 17).
20 percent of the respondents surveyed by Burst Media stated that they had already visited a presidential candidate’s website contesting in the 2008 race; one quarter of the respondents stated that they had clicked on a candidate’s or advocacy group’s online advertisement; and nearly half of the respondents, 50.7 percent, stated that they would watch a video clip on a candidate’s website, featuring the candidate discussing his or her positions on election issues (Burst Media 2007). Interestingly, the study further found that nearly one-third, 29.8 percent of the respondents, had visited the website of a candidate or issue advocacy group that they did not or were unsure they would support. Among the respondents who visited a candidate’s or group’s site they did not support – “three out of five, 58.8 percent, did so to learn more about the candidate’s or organisation’s position on issues, while 47.7 percent wanted to learn more about the candidate’s or group’s strategy/plans/tactics and 25.8 percent visited to send comments to the group or candidate”(Burst Media 2007).
A Performics survey overwhelmingly found that as many as 72 percent of the respondents who visit a candidate’s website say they are primarily looking for the candidate’s stance on specific issues.
Gomez Inc. even found that: “Many Web-savvy voters believe the candidate with the best performing website will win the Oval Office” (Gomez Inc. 2007). According to Gomez Inc., nearly half of the participants in the nationwide survey stated that they plan to visit at least one of the 2008 presidential candidates’ websites during the campaign (Gomez Inc. 2007). The data presented in this section shows that the number of voters visiting campaign websites during an election is not exceedingly high, but increasing. It becomes evident that the voters that do visit candidate websites are a very interesting group for campaigns to target. Many of these voters are actively seeking information about the candidates and seem to be quite open to persuasion and new ideas.
5.2.5 How do voters engage in online activities in regards to elections? For the first time in their politics and Internet focused surveys, Pew Internet and American Life Project asked respondents whether they had created and shared political content during the election. They found that:
• 8% of campaign internet users posted their own political commentary to a newsgroup, website or blog. • 13% of them forwarded or posted someone else’s political commentary. • 1% of them created political audio or video recordings. • 8% of them forwarded or posted someone else’s political audio or video recordings (Rainie 2007, p. 17).
“In all, 23% of campaign internet users (or 11% of internet users and 7% of the entire U.S. population) had done at least one of those things" (Rainie 2007, p. 17).
This, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project, translates into about 14 million people who were using the web’s interactive functions to contribute to political discussions and activities during the 2006 election (Rainie 2007, p. ii). These are quite significant numbers, which clearly show that the web has viral potential.
Based on what the studies have found it seems blogs clearly are an asset for candidates and political parties. A significant number of voters seem to rely on online sources when it comes to researching candidates. It is clear that people are willingly visiting the candidate’s sites and engaging in political discussions and activities online. We can therefore argue that candidates not operating a blog are missing out on a prime opportunity to put a positive and personal spin on their campaign. We can also argue that as a growing segment of the voter population is relying on online sources in researching candidates and elections, a blog might serve as a useful channel for targeting this specific voter segment.