It could be the new maxim of 21st century politics: To find voters, look online.
They're there in increasing numbers, in a politically diverse population that's growing, expanding its Internet activities and highly distinctive, with remarkable levels of political and social engagement. It's a group with the size and clout to change the way election politics happen in America.
For the first time in polls since 1996, this ABC News/Facebook survey finds the Internet rivaling newspapers as one of Americans' top two sources of news about the presidential election. It's also the only election news source to show growth, doubling since 2000.
One reason is the Internet's advance overall: Seventy-three percent of adults now go online, the most in polls since the dawn of the Internet age. Forty percent use the Internet specifically for news and information about politics and the election, surpassing the previous high, 35 percent in a 2004 survey.
Television remains predominant; 70 percent say it's one of their top two election news sources. But while still far ahead, that's down by 8 points since 2004 and by 15 points since 1996 in Pew polls. Newspapers follow, named by 26 percent as a top election news source — vastly down from 60 percent in 1996. Catching up with newspapers, 23 percent now cite the Internet as a main source of election news — twice the level seven years ago.
This national survey marks the partnership between ABC News and Facebook, the social networking site, in 2008 election coverage. The two organizations, with WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., are sponsoring a pair of debates among the presidential candidates in New Hampshire that air starting at 7 p.m. ET Saturday.
ENGAGEMENT — The four in 10 adults who use the Internet for election information are highly attuned to politics; compared with other adults, they're 22 points more likely to be following the campaign closely, 21 points more apt to plan to vote in an upcoming primary or caucus, 13 points more apt to report having voted 2004 and 10 points more likely to report being registered. That's engagement.
Other measures of political involvement point the same way. Eighty-three percent who go online for political information say they understand what's going on in government, and 78 percent feel they have a say in what it does. These comfort levels drop very sharply among other Americans, to 58 percent and 56 percent, respectively — 25 percentage points and 22 percentage points lower.
Social engagement is higher, as well: Rebutting onetime notions of isolation in cyberspace, 72 percent of people in the online political population report doing volunteer work for a church, charity or community group; volunteerism drops to 52 percent among other adults.
Online political participation, moreover, extends to in-person political discourse. Fifty-eight percent in the online political population regularly discuss or debate political issues with others in a face-to-face setting. Far fewer other Americans say they talk politics, 40 percent.