At the same time, even for the online political population, the Internet is more of a tool for information than for discussion. While nearly six in 10 regularly talk about politics with others face-to-face, far fewer, 6 percent, regularly engage in political discussions online (and just 10 percent ever do). That's one of many areas in which the intersection of the Internet and politics may yet develop further.
YOUNG VOTERS — Differences in engagement are especially striking among young adults — a group that, overall, tends to turn out at the polls in comparatively low numbers. Younger people are disproportionately apt to go online for political news — and those who do so are much more politically involved than others their age.
Among people younger than 30 who go online for political information, 84 percent are following the 2008 campaign closely, including 33 percent "very" closely, compared with just 51 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of people the same age who don't look into politics online. They're also 25 percentage points more likely to say they'll vote, 21 points more apt to feel they have a say in what the government does and 16 points more likely to participate in volunteer work. Particularly in the search for young voters, online's the locale.
ACTIVITIES — By far the top use of the Internet for political information is to look into the candidates' positions on the issues; 72 percent of the online political population does so, sharply up from its level in a 2004 Pew poll, 47 percent.
Given the expansion of broadband access, the steepest growth is in viewing candidate- or election-related video over the Internet. Now the second most common online political information activity, it's nearly doubled, from 30 percent in 2004 to 58 percent now. And among younger than 30 who go online for politics, it's higher still — 70 percent.
Among other top activities of the online political population, 52 percent use the Internet to check the accuracy of claims made by or about the candidates (up from 39 percent in Pew's 2004 poll), 50 percent check the candidates' standings in the polls, 44 percent visit the candidates' Web sites and 43 percent — another sharp increase from 2004 — check information on the candidates' voting records in office.
About three in 10 online political users have looked up candidates' endorsements or ratings by interest groups online, sent or received e-mails about the candidates or campaigns or looked up information on where or when to vote. Just shy of two in 10 have signed up for online alerts about the latest political or election news.
All these represent huge numbers of individuals. With the online political population at about 90 million overall, the number who look at political video clips is about 52 million people; visited candidates' Web sites, about 40 million; signed up for online news alerts, roughly 16 million.
Other activities are less prevalent, yet large enough to be strongly influential — with far more potential. The presidential candidates already have produced enormous fundraising results online, even though just 5 percent of Internet users have donated. Also, relatively few use social networking sites for political information or participate in online discussions or chat groups about the election (both these peak among people younger than 30).