January 17, 2008

Democratic Primaries Register Strongly with Public

News Audiences Much Less Interested in GOP Race

Summary of Findings

There has been no shortage of drama in either party’s early presidential primaries, but in the public’s view the Democratic contest has been far more compelling. Four-in-ten Americans (40%) say they find the Democratic primary race very interesting, nearly double the proportion describing the Republican race as very interesting (21%).

While press coverage of the campaign during the week of the New Hampshire primaries focused mainly on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain, the public remained focused primarily on the two Democratic frontrunners. McCain got virtually no boost in terms of his public visibility from the significant increase in press coverage of his campaign.

According to analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, for the period Jan. 6-11, 25% of campaign news stories were primarily about Clinton. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (39%) named Clinton as the candidate they have heard the most about in the news lately — making her the most visible candidate from either party. About the same proportion of news stories focused primarily on Obama (16%) and McCain (15%). Yet while they received comparable amounts of coverage, fully 37% named Obama as the candidate they heard the most about, while just 4% named McCain.

Most Americans (51%) believe that news organizations devote more coverage to the Democratic than the Republican primary campaign. By contrast, just 2% say the Republicans have gotten more coverage, while 42% say both contests have received about equal coverage. In fact, the Democratic race has been covered more extensively. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that during the week of the New Hampshire primary, 43% of all campaign stories focused mainly on the Democratic race while 32% were mostly about the Republicans. Another 19% of the stories were about candidates from both parties.

Modest Republican Interest in GOP Race

Democrats are engaged by their own party’s race — as a solid majority (57%) says the Democratic campaign has been very interesting. Republicans, on the other hand, are much less engaged by their party’s contest. Only 32% of Republicans say the GOP race has been very interesting. Among independents, the Democratic race is viewed as more interesting than the Republican race (35% of Independents consider the Democratic race very interesting, 19% see the GOP race as very interesting).

While young people traditionally pay less attention to politics and elections, they have taken a real interest in this year’s contest — particularly the race for the Democratic nomination. Fully 43% of those under age 30 say the Democratic presidential primary contest is very interesting. Young people are about as likely as older people to find the Democratic race interesting.

By contrast, just 17% of those under age 30 — and about the same proportion of those ages 30-49 (18%) — say they are very interested in the Republican race. Those ages 50 and older are somewhat more likely than young people to express strong interest in the Republican race; still just 27% say they are very interested in the Republican contest, compared with 41% who say the same about the Democratic race.

Clinton Again Most Visible Candidate

Clinton’s visibility increased following her unexpected victory in New Hampshire. Fully 39% said Clinton was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news lately, up from 28% the week of the Iowa caucuses. That week, Obama was the most visible candidate (at 38%), marking the first time that a candidate other than Clinton had led the list. Last week, 37% named Obama as the candidate they heard the most about.

McCain’s prominence increased only slightly after his victory in New Hampshire (from 1% to 4%). Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee, named by 13% after he won the Iowa caucuses, was far less visible last week (4%).

Assessing the Coverage

A majority of Americans (51%) believe — correctly — that the press is devoting more coverage to the Democratic campaign than to the Republican contest. Republicans are especially likely to see a partisan imbalance in press coverage of the campaign.

Fully 65% of Republicans say the press has given more coverage to the Democratic candidates, compared with just 2% who say there has been more coverage of the Republicans, and 31% who see it balanced about equally. Just 43% of Democrats believe their party’s candidates have received more coverage, while 48% say the amount of coverage has been fairly balanced. Half of independents believe the Democrats have gotten more coverage, while 44% say both parties’ campaigns have received equal coverage.

Clinton Victory: Widely Known, Not Much of a Surprise

Two-thirds of the public (67%) could name Clinton as the candidate who won the New Hampshire Democratic primary. This is just slightly below the 71% who named Obama as the Democratic winner in Iowa the previous week. Far fewer (55%) could recall John McCain as the GOP victor, which was only slightly more than the 51% who correctly named Mike Huckabee as the winner of the Iowa Republican caucuses. Just over half of the public (51%) could name both the Democratic and Republican winners in New Hampshire.

In spite of the fact that Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire defied most pre-election polls, a majority of those who knew that Clinton won the primary were not surprised by her victory. Only 43% of those who could name Clinton as the winner of the Democratic primary said they were surprised that she had won; 57% were not surprised.

Certain key voting groups, however, expressed more surprised than others. More men than women were surprised by Clinton’s victory — 48% of the men vs. 37% of the women who knew Clinton had won the NH primary were surprised by her victory. Among those who had been following campaign news very closely, 52% were surprised about Clinton’s win. This compares to fewer than 40% of those paying less attention to campaign news. Similarly, while 50% of college graduates were surprised by Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, only 36% of those without a college diploma were surprised.

McCain’s victory in New Hampshire was even less surprising to the public. Among those who knew McCain won, only 33% were surprised that the Arizona Senator had won, 65% were not surprised.

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 January 6-11 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected January 11-14 from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults.

Campaign and Economy Dominate News Interest

Nearly a third of the public followed news about the campaign very closely and four-in-ten listed the election as the story they were following more closely than any other. On Tuesday night, 38% of Americans tracked results of the New Hampshire primary as they were being reported. This is somewhat higher than the percentage that followed the results of the Iowa caucuses the previous week (30%). As was the case with Iowa, the vast majority of those who followed the New Hampshire primary results as they were coming in tracked them on television. Republicans, Democrats and Independents followed the New Hampshire results in roughly equal proportions.

Interest in news about the condition of the U.S. economy spiked amid widespread speculation about a possible recession. Fully 36% of the public followed news about the economy very closely, up from 27% in November. Interest in news about the economy hasn’t reached this level in over two years. Equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats (35%) followed economic news very closely last week. Next to the presidential campaign, the economy was cited most often as the news story Americans were following more closely than any other (14%). The national news media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to economic stories.

Several international stories were among last week’s top news interest stories. A quarter of the public paid very close attention to the current situation in Iraq, 11% listed this as their most closely followed story. Interest in the Iraq war has remained relatively stable over the past two months. News about an encounter between U.S. naval ships and several Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf drew the very close attention of 25% of the public (6% listed this as their most closely followed story). Republicans were particularly interested in this story with 29% following very closely vs. 20% of Democrats.

Roughly one-in-five Americans (19%) paid very close attention to continuing instability in Pakistan, and 16% followed news about President Bush’s peace talks in the Middle East very 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.