Each campaign cycle since 1994 has generated its own internet story. In 1994, it was the appearance of the first campaign Web site by Senator Diane Feinstein. In 1996, Web politics turned Presidential. One of the top stories was that Republican nominee Bob Dole gave the wrong url for his site during a nationally televised debate. But he didn’t seem to suffer any serious problem from the gaffe, demonstrating how peripheral internet politics was to the basic structure of the campaign just a decade ago.

By 1998, some clear internet effects began to emerge. Independent Jesse Ventura stunned the Minnesota political establishment by conducting an insurgent campaign that featured email communications. Two years later, GOP presidential candidate John McCain proved that candidates could raise a lot of money online and the power of the internet as a source of political news and information was well documented.5

In the mid-term election of 2002, work by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press showed that many voters were turning to the internet to get political information from multiple sources. The newest class of websites shaping online politics that year was interest group and advocacy organization sites.

In the presidential race of 2004, Howard Dean’s campaign showed political actors how social networking tools like blogs and Meetups could be effective in generating voter interest, in recruiting and motivating volunteers, and changing the interplay between citizens and campaigns.

The 2006 campaign produced its own story lines. Many of the online activities from previous years matured and were quickly embraced and built into the campaigns of 2006. More political Web sites emerged – both by campaigns and interest groups.  More money was raised. More online activism was evident. People exchanged more emails about politics and wrote more political blogs.

Innovations emerged in 2006 as well. Outside the boundaries of the internet, robo-calls (pre-recorded telephone calls soliciting votes) became a prominent part of the political environment.6 On the internet, the rise of online video as a political force was a major story.

This report attempts to document the varied uses of the internet by citizens during the 2006 campaign. It builds on similar work that began in 1996 by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press and has been repeated and updated in each campaign since then.

We created a new definition of “campaign internet users” in this survey.

While material gathered in this survey repeats questions from past surveys, there were some notable changes in this year’s version that have reduced our capacity to do election-to-election comparisons. We did not lightly give up that capacity to look at some trends, but we felt that adjusting the structure of the survey was necessary to reflect the technical and social realities of 2006. Simply put, people think about the internet differently from the way they did in 1990s when many of our original questions about the internet and politics were formulated.

Perhaps the most significant change comes in our definition of campaign internet users or, as we have called them in the past, political news consumers. In our past work, we have defined them as people who answered “yes” to the question: “Please tell me if you ever do any of the following when you go online. Do you ever look for news or information about politics and the campaign?” 

The language felt a bit archaic and somewhat imprecise. So, we have now defined campaign internet users as anyone who answered “yes” to one of several questions in our survey.  Campaign internet users in this report are those who say the internet was one of the top two news sources they used to get news “about the November elections” or who say “yes” to this query: “Did you get any news or information about the November elections on the internet or through email?” Or they answered “yes” to this: “Did you send or receive emails about the candidates or the campaigns – either with personal acquaintances or political organizations – or did you not happen to do this?”

Using these questions, we calculate that 31% of all American adults (or 46% of internet users) can be considered campaign internet users. This figure isn’t precisely comparable to our past reports about the size of the campaign internet user group because it was constructed in a different way. Nevertheless, in some key instances it is still reasonable to talk about growing use of the internet for political information and conversation – and we do so.

Several other changes in the way we conducted and report on our survey are discussed in the section on Methodology at the end of this report.

The American news mediascape is in flux.

The basic findings about the media universe in this survey continue to highlight patterns that have been well documented in previous work by The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press. The news market has been fracturing for more than a decade and news audiences have become increasingly politicized as trust in the mainstream media has declined and public perceptions of the credibility of mainstream news sources has fallen.7 Over this period, the internet is playing an ever-more-important role in the news diet of Americans.8 A decade ago, just one-in-fifty Americans got the news with some regularity from what was then a brand new source ­– the internet. Today, nearly one-in-three regularly get news online.

Television still dominates the typical day of news consumption.

In addition to asking detailed questions about political news consumption, we asked Americans about their consumption of general news. To capture a snapshot of news consumption on a “typical day,” we queried respondents about their behavior “yesterday” (the day before the respondent was contacted to take our survey), Americans report the following:

  • 61% say they watched a television news program. 
  • 38% say they read a newspaper.
  • 21% say they got news on the internet. This is 31% of the internet population.

As we documented earlier this year9, those who have broadband at home are different news consumers from non-internet users and dial-up users. In this survey, broadband users are just as likely to turn to the internet for news as they are their local newspaper on a typical day. Some 38% of home broadband users get news online on a typical day, the same percentage as home broadband users who read a newspaper on a typical day. For home dial-up users, however, online news is not as much an everyday activity.

Media experiences are moving to different channels: People go online to “read” newspapers and “watch” TV newscasts.

Notable numbers of Americans are consuming traditional news in new media forms. Some 8% of those who watched TV news “yesterday” say they viewed the program on something other than a TV, particularly their computers. Some 14% of those with broadband at home and 16% of those with broadband at work reported watching TV news on their computers. In addition, this was a practice that stood out for online men and those who are in their 30s.

Similarly, 38% of Americans say they read a newspaper “yesterday” and 15% of them say they read the newspaper online. Again, broadband users led the way: 27% of those with broadband at home read an online version of a newspaper and 32% of those with broadband at work did such reading. Whites, men, and those in their 30s were the most likely groups to read newspapers online.

Of course, a significant number of those online readers also read a paper copy of a newspaper. Among the 38% who read a newspaper yesterday (a population of slightly over 75 million people):

  • 84% only read a paper copy of the newspaper
  • 6% only read an online version of a newspaper
  • 9% read both a paper and an online version of a newspaper.