June 15, 2008 -- A record-breaking 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet to get political news and share their thoughts about the campaign this year, according to a survey released today by the Pew Research Center.
And while Sen. John McCain may have been the first major presidential candidate to harness the power of the Internet for fundraising in 2000, the survey finds Sen. Barack Obama is winning the online political war in 2008.
"People are using technology in more intense and enthusiastic ways for him," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Center's Internet & American Life Project, said of Obama.
The survey found 65 percent of wired Obama supporters said they got political news and information on the Internet this year compared with 56 percent of McCain backers.
Online Democrats are outpacing wired Republicans in contributing money online, using social networking sites for political reasons, watching online video and signing up for campaign emails — largely because more tech-savvy young people are Democrats.
The latest Pew survey said younger online political users tilt in favor of the Democrats in general and Obama in particular.
Obama's Tech-Savvy Facebook Entrepreneur
Those findings are of no surprise to Chris Hughes, 24, one of Obama's brightest foot soldiers in his online political campaign.
"Our Web presence has just been a very high priority for this campaign from Day One," Hughes said from his office in Obama's Chicago headquarters in a telephone interview with ABC News.
Four years ago, Hughes was a Harvard sophomore, helping his two roommates develop what would become Facebook Inc., the popular social networking Web site.
But when he learned Obama was running for president a year and a half ago, Hughes left Silicon Valley and put his Facebook career on hold to focus on what he calls "online grassroots organizing" for the campaign.
"Barack Obama and his past as a community organizer has meant that he'd internalized the real power of everyday people to change the political process when they get involved," Hughes said. "He's understood from the very beginning that the Internet makes it easier for everyday people to find ways to support the campaign, to get involved."
Obama Camp Wooing Clinton Supporters Online
Hughes is part of a 20-person new media team led by Obama campaign Internet director Joe Rospars, a key Internet staffer for Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid.
He's focused on connecting Obama supporters on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and primarily, on my.barackobama.com, where people can learn about Obama, create campaign events, and share thoughts about the campaign with each other and the campaign.
But unlike Facebook, Hughes said Obama's Web site is "less about building up a community of people" and "more about investing those people who already support us with the tools for them to reach out in real life and real communities to their friends, their family, their neighbors to bring them into the campaign."
Hughes lately has been working to coordinate online a "Day of National House Parties" for Obama on June 28.
"The idea here is that we're finally done with the primary, and it's time to bring together people who might have been Clinton supporters, independents or disaffected Republicans, and the best way to get them into the campaign is to have Obama supporters reach out to them directly and have them at their house."
The campaign is mailing over 1,000 hosts, who have signed up online, a 10-minute DVD about Obama to show to their guests, and it has posted online instructions for a group discussion about politics and a plan to come back together for a voter registration event.
"All of these different Internet tools lock in," Hughes said. "We use our big list of e-mail supporters to ask them to create the events in the first place; we use our blog structure to get people to promote the events; and then we use the groups in my.barackobama.com and the listserves to engage as many curious people as possible."
Hughes said that the entire Obama campaign — from people who work to get out the vote in the field, to people who bring in campaign money — supports the online effort.
McCain Camp: Dollars, Volunteers, Votes
McCain 's Internet director Michael Palmer concedes Obama has amassed a base of active supporters online. But he's skeptical the online fervor will translate into votes for the presumptive Democratic nominee this November.
"It's undeniable that Barack Obama has done a great job and his supporters online have really been activated and are drawn to him," Palmer said. "But if the activities of these very well-intentioned and tech-savvy people don't have an end game political benefit, then they don't help you at the end of the day."
Palmer said a lot of Obama's online support can be explained by the demographics of people online.
Indeed, the Pew poll found young people ages 18 to 29 can be credited with boosting Obama's online support.
Overall, about 50 percent of all Democrats, Republicans and Independents surveyed said they use the Internet, e-mail or text messages to learn about the presidential campaign and "engage in the political process."
However, wired Democrats outpace online Republicans in their Internet use for political reasons in large part because of the relative youth of people who identify themselves as Democrats.
And among politically active social networking Web site users — sites such as Facebook and MySpace — more Obama supporters than McCain supporters reported using the sites to get campaign or candidate information, start or join a political group, or discover friends' political interests or affiliations.
"At the end of the day, what do we want?" Palmer asked. "Right now it's about three things: It's about getting dollars, getting volunteers, and at the end of the day, it's about getting votes."
Obama Taps Small Donors Online
McCain broke new political ground in his 2000 presidential bid against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush when his campaign raised more than $6 million online following his New Hampshire primary victory.
"In 2000, John McCain was the one who proved that you could raise a lot of money very quickly online," Rainie said.
With campaign consultant Joe Trippi serving as campaign manager, Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 campaign tapped into MoveOn.org supporter base and raised $41 million in 2003 — breaking President Bill Clinton's previous party record for money raised in one quarter of a fundraising year.
The 2008 campaign, however, has blown the online fundraising door wide open, with Obama leading the way.
Obama has raised over $265 million, almost half from people donating $200 or less, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
McCain has raised almost $97 million, a quarter of that from so-called small donors.
At this point in the campaign, 8 percent of Internet users, representing 6 percent of all adults, have donated money to a candidate online — a notable increase from the 3 percent of Internet users who reported ever donating money online in Pew's 20006 survey.
Clinton Backers Less Web Savvy Than Obama Supporters
The latest national Pew Internet & American Life telephone survey was completed in April and early May before Obama sewed up the Democratic nomination, and it had more than 2, 251 respondents.
Obama supporters were more likely than supporters of former candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Internet users — 82 percent to 71 percent.
Among online Democrats, Obama supporters are more likely than Clinton supporters to have made online campaign contributions (17 percent vs. 8 percent), to sign online petitions (24 percent vs. 11 percent), to have passed along political commentaries in blogs and other forms (23 percent vs. 13 percent) and to have watched campaign videos of any kind (64 percent vs. 43 percent), the survey found.
"It's interesting now to see that Obama has blazed new trails with social networking and Internet video and that his supporters are really appreciating that," Rainie said.
Rainie said interest in the 2008 presidential race and an explosion of technology in media have created a perfect storm where Americans are going online for news about the race far more than in the past.
In 2000, just 16 percent of people said they looked online for political news, while that number reached 40 percent in 2008.
Much of the growth in online political news and information consumption has occurred among young people, those with college degrees and people with high incomes.
There are also signs that race has become a nonfactor in online political usage.
About 40 percent of all adults — whites and blacks, and 43 percent of Hispanics — reported looking online for news and campaign information about politics or the campaigns. That's up from the 2004 campaign, where only 19 percent of blacks, 31 percent of Hispanics and 32 percent of whites reported turning to the Internet for political news and information. The poll didn't give figures for other groups.
That explosion of online political usage has some wondering how far politicians like Obama can take their self-described online "movement."
"There's a lot of potential and there's lots that can be done with an administration that really values and understands how technology can help us do a lot of the things we have been doing, better," Hughes said.
Asked whether he would consider working for the administration if Obama wins the White House, Hughes said he hasn't even thought about it.
"Everything's possible," he said. "But right now I'm just totally focused on the campaign."