The Oprah Factor and Campaign 2008
Do Political Endorsements Matter?
Summary of Findings
Hillary Clinton continues to lead Barack Obama by a wide margin in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Obama has something Clinton doesn’t have — the support of Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey endorsed Obama in May of this year and recently held a fundraiser for him at her Malibu, Calif. home. While political endorsements generally have little impact on voter preferences, there is no telling whether Winfrey can do for Obama what she has done for the countless books and products she’s endorsed over the years.
When compared with several other celebrities and public figures, Winfrey is more influential than most, ranking on a par with Bill Gates and slightly behind Alan Greenspan. But most Americans say endorsements by celebrities and other well-known figures, including Oprah, would not affect their voting decisions: Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say that if they heard Winfrey was supporting a presidential candidate it would not influence their vote. And among those who do see an impact, the net expected effects are so mixed as to cancel each other out. Among the 30% who say they would be influenced by a Winfrey endorsement, 15% say they would be more likely to vote for the candidate and 15% say they would be less likely to do so.
While most Americans say Winfrey’s endorsement of a generic candidate would not influence their own vote, 60% believe her support for Obama will help his candidacy. Only 3% think her support will hurt Obama’s candidacy, and 31% say it won’t make any difference. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have heard about Winfrey’s decision to support Obama — 16% have heard a lot, 46% have heard a little.
The most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index tested the potential impact of 14 individuals and institutions, including Winfrey, on voter preferences in the coming presidential election. State governors are the most influential — 37% say their governor’s endorsement might affect their vote. But the impact of their endorsement is decidedly mixed. While 19% say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate their governor endorsed, almost exactly as many (18%) said this endorsement would make them less likely to support the candidate.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is one of only two individuals tested in the poll who had a net positive impact on potential voters. While 65% of the public said an endorsement from Greenspan wouldn’t affect their voting choice, 18% said it would make them more likely to support a candidate (14% said less likely). Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see a Greenspan endorsement as a plus.
Religious leaders have a positive impact on voters as well: 18% say an endorsement from their minister, priest or rabbi would make them more likely to vote for a candidate (12% say less likely). Clergy influence is especially potent among Republicans. Fully 27% say they would be positively influenced by a clergy endorsement. This compares with only 17% of Democrats.
A local newspaper’s endorsement of a candidate would have a mixed impact on the public — 14% would be influenced positively, 14% negatively. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has a similarly mixed impact: 13% of the public say a Gates endorsement would make them more likely to support a candidate, 14% say it would have the opposite effect.
Endorsements from the remaining individuals in the poll, all celebrities of one kind or another, would have a net negative though limited impact on the public. Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, elicited the strongest reaction. Nearly a third of the public said an endorsement from O’Reilly would influence their vote choice — 21% said it would have a negative impact, 11% said positive. Not surprisingly, the responses were divided along partisan lines: 26% of Republicans said if O’Reilly supported a candidate, they would be more likely to vote for that candidate. This compares with only 5% of Democrats.
An endorsement from Daily Show host Jon Stewart, while having a limited impact on the general public, would influence a significant number of young people. Among those under age 30, 23% say if Stewart endorsed a candidate they would be more likely to vote for that candidate. This compares with only 6% among those ages 30 and older.
In spite of the continued growth of her media empire, the potential impact of an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey remains about where it was eight years ago. In January 2000, 14% of the public said Winfrey’s support for a presidential candidate would influence them positively, 11% said it would influence them negatively, and 72% said it would have no impact on their vote choice.
Today blacks and young people are the most likely to be influenced by Winfrey’s opinion. Fully 28% of blacks say an endorsement from Winfrey would make them more likely to support a candidate, 16% say less likely and 55% say it would make no difference. Among whites, 12% would be influenced positively by Winfrey, 16% negatively and 71% wouldn’t be influenced at all. Among young people, nearly half say if Winfrey were supporting a candidate it would affect their vote choice. However, they are split about evenly in terms of whether they would follow Winfrey’s lead (26%) or reject her chosen candidate (23%). Women would see a Winfrey endorsement as a net positive, while men would view it as a negative, though the differences are not dramatic.
An endorsement by Winfrey would have a positive impact on many Democrats: 23% say they would be more likely to vote for Winfrey’s chosen candidate (13% say less likely). Even so, 64% say Winfrey’s support would have no impact on their vote.
Iraq Tops News Interest and Coverage
General David Petraeus’s long-awaited progress report on the war in Iraq made the Iraq policy debate last week’s most heavily covered news story — 36% of all national news coverage was devoted to this story. The public focused intently on Iraq as well. The situation on the ground in Iraq was the most closely followed news story of the week. Roughly three-in-ten Americans (31%) followed Iraq news very closely and 23% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. One-in-four paid very close attention to Petraeus’s report and 14% said this was their top story of the week. Republicans and Democrats followed the Petraeus story in nearly equal proportions. Independents paid somewhat less attention.
While public interest in Petraeus’s testimony was relatively high, it was far less than the attention given to President Bush’s initial announcement about the surge strategy in January of this year. Fully 40% of Americans followed that story very closely. The national media devoted slightly more time to the Iraq policy debate this past week than they had during the week of Bush’s surge announcement (36% vs. 34% the week of January 7-12).
These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage was collected from September 9-14 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected September 14-17 from a nationally representative sample of 1,032 adults.
Interest in the presidential campaign remained steady in spite of a slight falloff in coverage. Roughly one-in-five Americans (22%) followed campaign news very closely and 14% listed this as their most closely followed story. Coverage of the campaign comprised 5% of the overall newshole.
As has been the case every year since 2001, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was a major news story. The national media devoted 5% of their overall coverage to 9-11 commemorations. Roughly a quarter of the public (26%) followed the coverage very closely and 11% said this was the story they followed most closely last week. Interest in the anniversary was comparable to what it had been on the fifth anniversary in 2006 (27% very closely) but far below interest in the first anniversary in 2002 (39%).
The release of the latest messages from Osama Bin Laden — first a video tape released a few days before Sept. 11 and then an audio message on the anniversary — generated relatively little public interest. Only 14% of the public paid very close attention to the messages and 3% said this was the story they followed most closely last week. The media devoted 2% of its overall coverage to this story.
The case of the missing four-year-old British girl who disappeared from a resort in Portugal attracted a small news audience last week. Only 11% of the public followed this story very closely, even as the little girl’s parents came under suspicion, while 8% said this was the news story they followed most closely.
About the News Interest Index
The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.
This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.
Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.
For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.