News

Americans tracking politics via Internet

David Lightman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama is the darling of the ever-expanding Internet community -- but that doesn't mean he's automatically got a huge advantage over Republican rival John McCain in the general election.

"Democrats and Obama backers are more in evidence on the Internet than backers of other candidates or parties," according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study released Sunday.

But Republicans are Web-active, too.

"There are few differences (among supporters of both parties) on basic measures such as using the Internet or going on line to look for political news and information," the report said.

Still, Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, starts the campaign with some unquestionable technological edges.

"Wired Democrats are outpacing online Republicans in their usage of the Internet for political reasons," the Pew study said, "from social networking to watching online video to contributing money online or signing up for campaign-related e-mail." The project interviewed 2,251 adults between April 8 and May 11. The error margin was 2 percent for the entire sample and 3 percent for Internet users alone.

Techpresident.com, which tracks political Internet trends, had similar findings. Its data show that Obama has about seven times as many Facebook supporters as McCain and about 10 times as many YouTube hits.

But the numbers, experts said, could be skewed because Obama was in a tough nomination battle that ended only about a week ago, his core support was younger voters who tend to be more Internet-savvy, and voter sentiment is tilting Democratic this year anyway.

Micah Sifry, editor of techPresident.com, said the online activity is "not necessarily a reflection of what's going on in the entire country."

Where McCain could be worried, said Sifry, is that Obama has proven to be a strong Internet candidate because he's an outsider with a clear message. But that doesn't necessarily mean he'll win in November; after all, Republican Ron Paul was an Internet favorite this year for the same reasons but got nowhere.

Obama's Internet savvy also gives him a grassroots network that McCain may have to develop.

The Pew study found that Obama backers are more likely than McCain backers to sign an online petition, seek e-mails from campaigns, give money online and volunteer for the campaign.

While the political power of the Internet to sway votes remains unproven, Pew did find a trend that has had impact already this year-many major campaign developments have been Internet-driven.

Internet sites broke news about Obama's labeling small-town people "bitter," the video featuring his controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and sermons by preacher John Hagee, a McCain supporter.

The survey found that 46 percent of all adults are using the Internet, e-mail or phone text messaging for political purposes. Forty percent said they look for campaign information online, up from 31 percent four years ago.

"Campaigns are seeing that control of the message is no longer possible," said Sifry.

[Read the Pew reports]

[See techPresident campaign data]

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