July 21, 2004

Democratic Party Image Improvement

Democrats More Confident, Kerry Faring Better in Battleground States

Summary of Findings

Sen. John Kerry enters the Democratic convention next week bolstered by a number of favorable trends in public opinion, although he remains locked in a statistical tie for voter support with President George W. Bush. His party is dominant on key domestic issues and at least competitive with the Republicans on every issue except terrorism. Most important, the Democrats have a strong advantage over the GOP as the party that cares more about the needs of ordinary people. Further, rank-and-file Democrats are increasingly unified and optimistic about their chances in November.

At the same time, President Bush’s overall job rating still hovers below the 50% mark, and his ratings on individual issues — with the exception of terrorism — remain lackluster at best. In addition, despite the U.S. transfer of power in Iraq, public perceptions of the situation there have not improved. Just 42% approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq, and six-in-ten (59%) continue to believe he does not have a clear plan to bring the situation to a successful conclusion. And Iraq leads the list of the most important problems facing the nation.

For all that, however, there are no signs that Kerry is breaking out in the presidential horse race. Currently, Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards draw 46% among registered voters, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney 44%, with 3% going to Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo. The race continues to fluctuate within a fairly narrow range; last month Bush led Kerry by a slight margin (46%-42%).

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted July 8-18 among 2,009 adults (1,568 registered voters), shows that while the race remains tight, Kerry has made a notable improvement in his standing in the battleground states. Kerry currently holds a small 47%-41% edge in these states; last month, Bush was ahead by 11 points (49%-38%).

Yet in many ways, Kerry’s horse race numbers do not match up with the Democrats’ growing strength on issues and the party’s improving overall image. Since September 2002, prior to the midterm election, the Democrats have moved from a tie on dealing with the economy to a 12-point lead (46%-34%), and eliminated the GOP’s 10-point edge on foreign policy. Democrats also are running about even with the Republicans on making wise decisions about Iraq (40% Democrat/ 38% Republican); in October 2002, the GOP held a 16-point advantage on handling Iraq. Currently, the only issue on which the public favors the Republicans by a substantial margin is in dealing with terrorism at home (45%-30%).

The Democrats also are perceived in a favorable light on such qualities as competence and compassion. About as many people say the phrase “able to manage the federal government well” describes the Democrats as the Republicans (40% vs. 37%). During the mid- and late 1990s, pluralities typically associated this characteristic with Republicans. By a wide margin (50%-30%), most people say the phrase “is concerned with the needs of people like me” also better describes Democrats. Republicans run about even with Democrats on honesty and ethics, and are overwhelmingly viewed as the party concerned with “the needs and interests of business and other powerful groups” (61%-22%).

At the same time, the Democrats have retained — or in some cases reasserted — their advantage on domestic issues. The Democrats continue to lead by wide margins on health care and the environment. And education once again has become a strong suit for the Democrats; by 45%-29%, the public believes Democrats can do a better job of improving the educational system. This marks a change from early in Bush’s administration, when the president’s strong focus on education helped the Republicans to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage on this issue.

The new Pew survey shows that as the Democratic Party heads off to the convention its members are increasingly confident of victory in November. Overall, 42% of voters nationally say they expect Bush to win the election, while 38% say Kerry. Democrats, in particular, have become significantly more confident in a victory for their party. In May, only half of Democrats predicted a Kerry victory, a figure which rose to 57% in June and stands at 66% today. Independents also have a different view of the race than a few months ago, but are expressing more uncertainty about the outcome than are either Democrats or Republicans.

Overall, 49% of Americans rate the selection of Edwards as vice presidential nominee as good or excellent, compared with 31% who call it only fair or poor. The reception for Edwards is more positive than the welcome given to Al Gore when he was picked by Bill Clinton in July 1992. This is especially the case among Democrats, who have a much more favorable view of Kerry’s selection of Edwards than of Clinton’s choice of Gore.

For his part, Bush continues to receive subpar approval ratings on some of the same issues on which the Democratic Party has made gains. On the war in Iraq and the economy — the two issues that the public identifies as the most important problems facing the country — majorities continue to disapprove of Bush’s job performance. Bush does considerably better on terrorism, but this issue ranks well below the war and the economy in public concerns. Currently, 54% approve of the president’s handling of terrorist threats, which is largely unchanged over the past few months but down since last fall.

Voter Engagement Rising

Voter attention to the 2004 election continues to run high relative to other recent elections. Two-thirds of voters (67%) say they have given “quite a lot” of thought to the coming presidential election, up from 58% in June. There was a similar rise in public interest in the early summer of 1992, when fully 72% of voters have given a lot of thought to the race by August, up from 63% in June of that year. By comparison, in 1996 and 2000 voters had not given this much thought to the election until October, within weeks of election day.

Roughly three-in-ten Americans (29%) say they are following news about the 2004 presidential campaign “very closely.”While this figure has not risen in recent months, it is substantially higher than in July of 2000 (21%), 1996 (22%), or 1992 (20%).

Satisfaction up to 38%

Public satisfaction with the way things are going in the country has increased slightly to 38%, from an eight-year low in May when only 33% were satisfied with national conditions. Since late February, majorities have expressed dissatisfaction with country’s course. Currently, 55% say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going.

Perceptions of satisfaction are strongly influenced by partisanship. Fully 68% of Republicans are satisfied with the way things are going compared with 31% of independents and just 18% of Democrats. Similarly, Bush and Kerry voters are deeply divided over national conditions. Half of swing voters (52%) are dissatisfied with the way things are going, while 38% are satisfied.

Fewer Cite Economic Problems

The economy has faded somewhat as the public’s top concern since the beginning of the year, while foreign issues — specifically the war in Iraq — have assumed greater prominence. Today, by a margin of 41% to 26%, more mention war, terrorism, or other foreign policy issues than generally cite the economy as the most important problem. In January, about the same number cited foreign issues as the economy (37% vs. 35%).

The percentage specifically citing the war in Iraq as the country’s most important problem rose from 16% in January to 25% now. That is still below the 34% who cited Iraq in February 2003, on the eve of the conflict. At the same time, the number citing terrorism as the most important problem dropped from 14% in January to 8% now.

More Kerry voters than Bush voters cite both Iraq (31% vs. 23%) and the economy (28% vs. 20%) as important problems. Bush voters are more apt to mention terrorism than are Kerry voters (15% vs. 5%).

Democrats Gain on Issues

Over the past two years, the Democratic Party has improved its standing on the public’s two leading concerns — the war in Iraq and the economy. The biggest shift has come on the economy.

Fully 46% of Americans say the Democratic Party can do a better job of dealing with the economy, 34% say the GOP can do a better job on this issue. In the fall of 2002, the two parties were virtually tied on the issue. And as recently as January 2002, the Republicans enjoyed a significant lead (43% vs. 34%).

In spite of the fall off in support for the GOP’s handling of the economy, rank-and-file Republicans remain firmly committed to their own party on this issue. About seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) say their party can do the best job handling the economy, down only marginally from 74% in January 2002. Democrats’ opinions on this issue have shifted significantly, however. In 2002, 61% of Democrats said their party could do the best job handling economic matters, today that number has risen to 82%.

The views of independents have shifted even more dramatically. In early 2002, independents favored the GOP’s approach to handling the economy over the Democrats’ (45% vs. 30% respectively).Today, independents have more confidence in the Democratic Party on this issue by a margin of 44%-27%.

Partisan Parity on Iraq, Foreign Policy

The public is now divided over which party can do a better job dealing with the situation in Iraq. Four-in-ten Americans say the Democratic Party can do better in making wise decisions about what to do in Iraq, while 38% choose the Republicans. In early October 2002, Republicans held a clear edge on this issue among registered voters (46% vs. 30% for the Democrats).

As is the case with opinions on the economy, most of the shift in opinion since that time has come among Democrats. In early October 2002, just over half of Democrats (55%) said their party could do the best job handling the situation in Iraq. In that survey, conducted among registered voters, one-in-four Democrats actually had more confidence in the GOP’s ability to handle this issue. Today, 77% of Democrats say their party can do the best job dealing with Iraq. Republicans’ opinions have remained remarkably stable over this same period, while independents are now more likely to favor the Democratic Party on this issue.

The Democratic Party also has drawn even with the GOP on the general issue of foreign policy. When asked which party can do a better job making wise decisions about foreign policy, the public divides fairly evenly — 40% choose the Democrats and 38% choose the Republicans. Two years ago, the Republicans led, 40%-30%.

Terrorism remains a strong issue for the Republicans, although the GOP is not quite as dominant as it was in early 2002.Currently, 45% of Americans say the GOP can do a better job dealing with terrorism, 30% choose the Democrats. In January 2002, nearly half of the public (48%) expressed more confidence in the Republicans when it came to dealing with terrorism, only 18% said the Democrats could do a better job. But the GOP’s lead on terrorism remains about as large as it was in October 2002 (44%-28%).

Morality — No Edge to GOP

Five years ago, 52% of the American public said the Democratic Party could do a better job improving the educational system, while only 29% chose the Republican Party. By January 2001, the two parties were in a virtual tie on this issue, and a year later, the GOP narrowly led the Democratic Party (37% vs. 34%). Today, Democrats have regained a 16% point advantage over the Republicans on the issue of improving education (45% vs. 29%, respectively).

As is the case with many of these policy issues, Democrats have much more confidence in their own party’s ability to make progress on education today than they did a couple of years ago. In January 2002, only 57% of Democrats said their party was best equipped to improve the educational system; today, 80% feel that way. Republicans continue to favor their own party’s approach to education by a solid margin.

The Democratic Party also has achieved gains on the issue of improving morality. Republicans had maintained a solid lead on this issue from the mid-1990s through the first two years of the Bush presidency. In January 2001, as Bush took office, the GOP enjoyed a 23-point advantage over the Democrats on the question of which party could do a better job of improving morality in this country. A year later, the Republicans held an 11% point advantage on this issue. Today, the public is evenly divided over which party can provide stronger moral leadership — 37% choose the Republicans, 35% say the Democrats.

The Democratic Party continues to hold a substantial lead over the Republican Party on the issue of health care reform. While the Democratic advantage on this issue has fluctuated over time, the party has consistently been viewed as better able to handle health care reform since the early 1990s. The Republicans came within striking distance of the Democrats last summer, when the GOP-led Medicare reform bill was working its way through Congress. However, the Democrats have regained their footing on this issue and now lead the Republicans by a 27-point margin.

Health care is one issue where current Democratic policies may have at least some appeal for rank-and-fine Republicans. Last year, Republicans were fairly united behind their own party on this issue: 69% said the GOP could do the best job handling health care reform, only 8% favored the Democrats. Now, only about half of Republicans (54%) have more confidence in their party, 20% say the Democrats could do a better job.

The Republican Party had made impressive gains among older Americans in 2002 on the health care issue, but many of them have since returned to the Democratic fold. Today, more than half of those age 50 and older say the Democrats can do a better job reforming health care, up from 37% in 2003.By contrast, only 20% say the Republican Party can do a better job on this issue, down from 32% in 2003.

The Democratic Party continues to be viewed as better able to protect the environment: 51% of the public trusts the Democrats on this issue, while 24% trust the Republicans. This advantage has remained consistent over the past 14 years.

On gun control, however, the Democratic Party has lost ground compared with the early 1990s. In December 1993, the Democrats held a 10-point lead on “reflecting your views about gun control.” But the public has been more divided on this issue in recent years. Currently, 34% say the Republican Party does a better job reflecting their views about gun control, 36% choose the Democratic Party.

Finally, on the issue of homosexuality, neither party has a clear advantage. Roughly one-third of Americans say the GOP comes closest to their views on homosexuality, and another third say the Democratic Party best reflects their views. Fully a quarter (24%) say they do not know which party does the best job on this issue.

Those who favor gay marriage strongly support the Democratic Party’s approach in dealing with gay and lesbian issues: 59% of those who favor gay marriage say the Democrats come closer to their views on homosexuality, only 14% prefer the Republicans’ approach. Gay marriage opponents say the Republican Party better reflects their views on homosexuality, and this is especially the case among those who back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (56% Republican/16% Democrat).

Party Images

In terms of the parties’ images, the Democrats continue to be seen as the party concerned with the needs of both the disadvantaged and average Americans. Republicans are viewed as the party concerned with the needs of business and other powerful groups. The contrast is striking: 57% of Americans say the Democratic Party is concerned with the needs and interests of the disadvantaged, while 23% say this better describes the Republican Party. On the other hand, 61% of Americans say the Republican party is concerned with the interests of business and other powerful groups while only 22% say the same about the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is seen as better able to “bring about the kind of changes the country needs” (46% vs. 35% for the Republicans). This 11-point advantage is greater than the edge the Democrats held in July 1996, but not nearly as wide as the lead they held in the summer of 1992. Going into the party’s convention that year, Democrats were seen as better able than Republicans to bring about needed changes in the country by a margin of 47%-24%.

One area where the Democrats have made some significant progress is on the question of which party is better able to manage the federal government well. Throughout the mid- and late 1990s, the Republican Party held a clear advantage on this question. In July 1996, 45% of Americans thought the Republicans could do a better job managing the federal government; only 32% said the same about the Democrats. Today, for the first time since July 1992, the Democrats hold a slight advantage on this measure: 40% of Americans say the Democratic Party is able to manage the federal government well, while 37% say this is an apt description of the GOP.

The public remains largely divided over which party is more honest and ethical: 37% say the Democratic Party governs in an honest and ethical way, 34% say the same of the Republican Party.

GOP Moderates Less Happy With Party

In general, Republicans rate their party favorably for standing up for traditional GOP positions on such things as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative values (61%). This is improved slightly from last year at this time when 57% of Republicans gave their party high marks. In the summer of 2000, when the Republicans did not control the White House, the attitudes of the rank-and-file mirrored those of Democrats today — just 49% said their party was doing an excellent or good job representing its core constituencies.

However, there is a significant gap in the views of conservative and moderate Republicans as to how well the party advocates traditional positions. Conservative Republicans are much more enthusiastic about the way their party is carrying out its core mission than are moderate and liberal Republicans (73% vs. 57%, respectively, say the GOP is doing an excellent or good job).

Compared with Republicans, Democrats are more divided over the job their party is doing standing up for core principles. Roughly half (49%) of Democrats say their party is doing an excellent or good job standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy and representing working people. But an equal number (48%) say their party is doing only a fair or poor job. Democrats are more enthusiastic about their party’s performance today than they were a year ago when only 38% gave their party excellent or good marks. Many more (63%) viewed the party as effective in 2000, when they held the White House.

But in contrast with the Republicans, Democrats have fewer ideological divisions. The assessments of liberal Democrats are quite similar to those of more moderate and conservative Democrats: 54% of liberal Democrats and 56% of moderate and conservative Democrats give their party high marks for standing up for its traditional positions.

No Change in Views on Gay Marriage

Despite the onset of legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts this spring, and the ongoing political and legal battles over the issue, public attitudes about gay marriage and a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the practice have been unchanged since March. By a wide margin (56% to 32%), Americans say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. But just 31% of the public believes that a constitutional amendment is a good idea, down slightly from 36% in March; 22% of the public oppose gay marriage but think an amendment would be a bad idea.

Even among Republicans, less than a majority thinks a constitutional amendment would be a good idea (46%). And just 53% of white evangelical Protestants feel this way.

There continues to be greater acceptance of civil unions than of gay marriage. Currently,49% of Americans favor the idea of allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements that would give them many of the same rights as married couples; 43% are opposed.

Convention Interest Flat

Most Americans profess little interest in the upcoming Democratic convention in Boston, just as they did for the Republican convention held at about the same time in 2000. Just 36% say they are interested following what happens at the convention, about the same as in 2000 (34%); just 19% are very interested. Overall levels of interest are down significantly from 1992, when a majority of 53% expressed interest in the Democratic convention.

As expected, Democrats — and especially liberal Democrats — express more interest in the convention than do other groups. Half of Democrats (51%), and 61% of liberal Democrats say they are interested in following what happens at the convention next week. In 2000, 47% of Republicans and 51% of conservative Republicans felt this way about their convention.

As in 2000, the major television networks plan to give both conventions relatively little prime-time coverage, with public TV and the cable networks taking up most of the slack. Over half of the poll’s respondents (54%) say they plan to watch just a little of the coverage or none of it (29% “just a little,” 25% “none of it”).

Despite lower levels of general interest in the conventions, the number of people who say they are looking forward to watching the roll call of the states and Kerry’s acceptance speech is down only modestly from 1992. Democrats express comparable levels of interest in Kerry’s speech when compared with Clinton’s (77% in 1992, 74% now), though Republicans are far less interested now (31% in 2004, 51% in 1992).

Fewer are interested in learning about the Democratic platform this year than in 1992, but there is greater interest now than there was for the GOP platform in 2000.

Most Approve of Kerry’s VP Choice

Kerry’s selection of Edwards as his running mate has gotten a favorable public reaction, though it has not changed the presidential race. Nearly half (49%) have a positive view of the choice, which is somewhat higher than the percentage who expressed a favorable opinion of Al Gore’s selection by Bill Clinton in July 1992 (40% favorable). Compared with Al Gore, significantly more people have formed an impression of Edwards at this point in the campaign (80% have an opinion of Edwards vs. 67% for Gore).

The response to Edwards’ selection has been especially positive among Democrats: 27% rate it as an excellent choice, 44% good. This was significantly better than Democratic reaction to Gore’s selection in 1992, when 21% of Democrats said the pick was excellent and 29% said it was a good choice. Among Democrats in 1992, nearly a third (32%) had no opinion about Gore. Owing to the prominence gained by Edwards in his primary contest against Kerry, just 12% of Democrats had no opinion about his selection.

Democrats Unified

Seven-in-ten Democrats, say the party will unite solidly behind John Kerry’s presidential bid. Only a fraction of Democrats (14%) predict that differences and disagreements within the party will keep many from supporting the ticket. This represents a stark change from 1992, when only a minority of Democrats (43%) expected the party to be solidly unified and nearly as many (37%) said that differences within the party would keep many from supporting Clinton and Gore.

Both in 1992 and today, Republicans have been more skeptical about the chances for Democratic unity. Only a third of Republicans today expect the Democrats to unite solidly behind Kerry, while 37% think that disagreements among Democrats will significantly limit Kerry’s support.

Religious Background

So far, John Kerry’s religious affiliation appears to be having little impact on the 2004 election, perhaps because few people are aware that he is a Catholic. Barely a quarter of Americans (26%) can recall that Kerry is Catholic, while 38% identify Bush as Protestant.

Public awareness of the candidates’ religious affiliation is far lower than in some previous elections. Four years ago, In an August 2000 survey, Gallup found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans knew that vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman was Jewish. And

John Kennedy’s religion was major issue in the 1960 election. In a Gallup survey conducted in July of that year,84% of respondents identified John Kennedy’s religion as Roman Catholic, and 56% listed Nixon’s religion as either Protestant or Quaker (the survey counted either as correct).

In the current survey, awareness of the candidates’ religions is far greater among older and more educated voters. People age 65 and older are about four times as likely as those under 30 to know Kerry’s religion (45% vs. 11%) and twice as likely to know Bush’s (54% vs. 27%).

Catholics are somewhat more aware of Kerry’s faith than are other Americans. Fully 43% of white Catholics know that Kerry shares their faith, compared with only about a quarter of white Protestants. There also is a regional aspect to knowledge about Kerry’s religion: 44% of those who live in the Northeast know he is Catholic, compared with fewer than a quarter elsewhere.

Bush supporters are much more likely to know their candidate’s religious background than to know Kerry’s (50% know Bush is Protestant, 30% know Kerry is Catholic). By comparison, Kerry supporters have about the same awareness of the Democratic nominee’s religion (36%) as the president’s (39%).

Iraq Views Unchanged

Despite the U.S. transfer of power to an independent Iraqi government and a period of fairly stable news coverage, public attitudes toward the situation in Iraq have not improved. Just over half of Americans (52%) feel it was right to go to war and a 55% majority believes the military effort there is going very or fairly well, largely unchanged since June.

The public continues to be divided on the question of whether the war in Iraq is helping or hurting in the war on terrorism. Opinions on this issue are closely associated with attitudes on whether going to war was the right or wrong decision. About two-thirds (68%) of those who support the Iraq war believe it has helped the war on terrorism, while 76% of those who feel the Iraq war was the wrong decision say it has hurt the war on terrorism.

A majority of Americans (53%) continue to favor maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation there has stabilized, while 43% favor withdrawing the troops as soon as possible. Opinion on this issue has been largely unchanged over the past few months. Nearly half of Americans (48%) believe U.S. troops could be withdrawn in the next two years, while 44% expect they will have to remain at least two years— with 17% saying they will stay longer than five years.

Swing Voters on Iraq

Public opinion on Iraq continues to be deeply divided along political lines. Kerry voters overwhelmingly believe that the war was the wrong decision (81%-16%), while Bush voters support that decision by an even wider margin (91%-6%).

On this question and others relating to Iraq, the opinions of swing voters fall between the committed Kerry and Bush voters and generally reflect the views of the electorate as whole. About half of swing voters (52%) believe the war was the right decision, while 38% disagree. Four-in-ten (43%) believe the war has helped in the broader struggle against terrorism compared with 39% who think the conflict in Iraq has undermined the war on terror.

Nearly eight-in-ten Bush voters (78%) believe the United States should keep its troops in Iraq until the country is stabilized, compared with 41% of Kerry voters. About half of swing voters (53%) favor U.S. forces remaining in Iraq until stability is brought to the country.

Low Marks for New Iraqi Government

The public is generally critical of the new Iraqi government. Most Americans (55%) rate the new government’s performance in running the country as fair or poor compared with just 23% who think the new government is doing an excellent or good job. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to give the new government a positive rating (38% vs. 17% ). In addition, those who have followed news coverage of the U.S. transfer of power very closely are more likely to give the new Iraqi government high ratings.

Iraqis’ Needs Not Being Met

Americans give the United States and its allies lower marks for addressing the needs of the Iraqi people compared with earlier in the year. In February, half of Americans rated the allied efforts in this area as excellent or good; that number has fallen slightly to 44% in the current survey.

In May 2003, when the president declared major combat in Iraq to be over, nearly six-in-ten (59%) said the United States and its allies were doing at least a good job of addressing the needs of the Iraq people. Since then, the public has been less favorable in evaluations of the allies’ performance.

Currently, nearly three-quarters of Republicans (74%) rate the allies’ job in addressing Iraqis’ needs as good or excellent, compared with just 23% of Democrats.

“Fahrenheit 9/11″

Just 6% of the public reports having seen the Michael Moore film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Four-in-ten Americans (42%) say they plan on seeing it, while nearly half the public (49%) does not plan to watch the film.

As expected, the partisan and ideological divisions run deep between those who have seen the movie and those who do not plan to see it. The film’s audience is mostly Democratic (57%), liberal (53%) and most disapprove of Bush’s job as president (76%).

Those who have seen Moore’s film favor Kerry over Bush by an 84% to 12% margin. A similar proportion of the movie’s audience (82%) believes the U.S. made the wrong decision to go to war in Iraq. Ralph Nader gains no more electoral support from the movie’s viewers than he does overall.

By contrast, Americans who say they have no plans to ever see Moore’s film tend to be Republican and conservative (42% and 47%, respectively) and prefer Bush over Kerry by two-to-one (60% to 29%).Most say the U.S. made the right decision to use military force in Iraq (62%) and approve of Bush’s job performance (61%).

Roughly one-third (35%) of those who have seen “Fahrenheit 9/11″ are between 30 and 49, while 32% are age 18-29. Also, the movie’s audience is highly educated; fully 56% have college degrees. This is more than double the percentage of the public with a college degree (roughly 27% according to the latest Census estimates).

Gas Prices, Iraq Lead News Interest Index

Reports on high gas prices lead the monthly news interest index. More than half of Americans (56%) say they followed these reports very closely. Attention to this story was equally high in April and June of this year.

Public interest in news from Iraq has increased slightly to 43% from a recent low of 39% in June. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) followed news about the transfer of power to the newly established Iraqi government very closely, and 26% paid equally close attention to Saddam Hussein’s recent appearance in an Iraqi court of law.

A handful of recent news stories have drawn higher levels of interest from Democrats than Republicans or independents. Fully a third of Democrats (34%) followed news about Edwards’ selection as the vice presidential nominee very closely, compared with just 19% of Republicans and 20% of independents.

And the publication of Bill Clinton’s autobiography attracted close attention from 15% of Democrats, but just 4% and 6% of Republicans and independents, respectively.

Overall, one-in-five Americans say they followed news about the release of “Fahrenheit 9/11″ very closely. This is about half as many as paid very close attention to the release of “The Passion of the Christ” in March.

And while news interest in the release of Mel Gibson’s movie crossed partisan lines, Republicans were largely uninterested in news about Moore’s film. Just 16% of Republicans, compared with 28% of Democrats, followed news about “Fahrenheit 9/11″ very closely.

Sudan Crisis Garners Limited Attention

Just 14% of Americans have been following news about ethnic violence in Sudan very closely. One-in-three (35%) say they have not followed this story closely at all. This is comparable to earlier humanitarian crises in Africa: 12% paid very close attention to the 1994 outbreak of violence in Rwanda, and 10% followed the 2000 flooding in Mozambique very closely.

Currently, blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites to be following news about Sudan very closely (24% vs. 13%).This is comparable to differences in news about the spread of AIDS in Africa (29% of blacks and 18% of whites followed very closely), and Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to Africa (25% vs. 11%, respectively). The one exception to this racial difference in news interest was the 1994 violence in Rwanda, which neither white nor black Americans followed very closely.