Political independents are more likely than Republicans or Democrats to use the Internet to learn about candidates, according to a large study of computer users released yesterday.
The finding is important for politicians and strategists, since independents tend to tune out traditional forms of political communication, including mailings and broadcast ads. The poll, which included 1,205 likely voters who use the Internet at least once a week, was conducted for the Democracy Online Project, at the Graduate School of Political Management of George Washington University.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey, refers to independents' willingness to surf around for political information as "the Jesse Ventura effect." Ventura, who ran for Minnesota governor as a Reform Party candidate, attributed his upset victory in part to young voters who had learned about him online.
"Independents like the idea of being able to discover some of these candidates on their own," said Lake. "It's a way for them to get around the rhetoric."
Of respondents who said they paid close attention to government, 37 percent of independents had used the Internet for political information, compared with 31 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of Democrats. About 22 percent of all respondents had gone online for political information. The poll, conducted in October, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Dave Sackett, the Republican pollster who worked on the poll, said the Internet is an attractive medium for candidates because it's one that voters seem to actually like. A big reason, he said, is that they choose when to visit and what to look at. Sackett said that gives a campaign a longer chance to get its message across than "the eight seconds between the mailbox and the garbage." But not much. "If they don't like what they see, they're gone," he said.
Lake said a surprising finding was that 75 percent of those polled believed candidate information on the Internet was very or somewhat accurate, and 64 percent said they trusted the information they found. "In an era of cynicism, that's quite remarkable," she said.
Those polled were most interested in candidates' issue positions and voting records, and did not rate interactivity as an important feature of political sites. "People don't find other users' opinions that authoritative," Lake said.
Lake said women and Democrats were more concerned about privacy than were men and Republicans--the reverse of the usual finding for polls about other privacy questions, including medical and government records.
The poll was released at the sixth annual Politics Online Conference, a day-long seminar sponsored by the Graduate School of Political Management.