February 21, 2008

Campaign Seen as Less Negative than 2004 Contest

Gore, Edwards Endorsements Would Have Modest Impact

Summary of Findings

The public remains highly engaged in the presidential campaign, and strong majorities say the campaign is important, easy to follow, interesting and informative. The public’s only major complaint about the campaign is its length: 57% say it is too long, while 40% disagree. However, campaign fatigue has not increased in recent months. If anything, the public is less concerned about the length of the campaign now than was the case last fall. In October, 66% said the campaign was too long, and 28% said it was not.

Relatively few Americans (28%) say the campaign has been too negative thus far. Two-thirds (66%) say it has not been too negative. By comparison, nearly half of the public found the campaign to be too negative at a comparable point in the 2004 election. In March 2004, 47% of Americans said the presidential campaign had been too negative, while 47% said it had not been too negative. By the fall of 2004, a solid majority of voters (57%) said the campaign was too negative.

Those who are following the campaign very closely are among the least likely to view it as being too negative. Just 23% of those paying very close attention to the campaign say it has been too negative. This compares with 32% of those paying less attention to the campaign. In March 2004, those who were highly attentive to the presidential campaign were just as likely as those paying less attention to say it was too negative.

Republicans are somewhat more critical than Democrats of the tone of the campaign. Roughly a third of Republicans (34%) say the campaign has been too negative compared with only 19% of Democrats. Even so, a strong majority of Republicans (61%) says the campaign has not been excessively negative.

Public interest in the campaign continues to rise, and is much higher than at comparable periods in previous presidential elections. In fact, the current level of interest in campaign news rivals or surpasses interest in the very late stages of the 2004 and 2000 campaigns. Last week, 44% of the public followed news about the campaign very closely. In mid-October 2004, 46% were paying very close attention to the campaign. And in mid-October 2000, 40% were following very closely.

Fully 70% of the public now finds the campaign interesting, as opposed to dull. This is nearly twice the number that said the campaign was interesting last fall. In October 2007, 37% said the campaign was interesting, 55% said it was dull.

Democrats Applaud Campaign

There are consistent partisan gaps in evaluations of the campaign, with Democrats expressing a more positive view of the campaign than either Republicans or independents. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (63%) and 60% of independents complain that the campaign is too long. This compares with 49% of Democrats.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to find the campaign interesting: 80% of Democrats vs. 68% of Republicans and 64% of independents say the campaign is interesting rather than dull. Similarly, more Democrats than Republicans or independents say the campaign is informative (75% of Democrats vs. 64% of Republicans and 61% of independents).

The idea that this election is important cuts across party lines: 94% of Democrats, 89% of Republicans and 87% of independents agree on this point.

Gore More Influential than Edwards

An endorsement from Al Gore would have a modest impact on Democratic voters; 27% say if they heard Gore was supporting a presidential candidate they would be more likely to vote for that candidate. Fully two-thirds say a Gore endorsement would not affect their vote, and 6% say they would be less likely to vote for Gore’s choice.

A Gore endorsement would have a greater impact on younger voters. Among those under age 50, 31% say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who Gore supported, only 20% of those age 50 and older say the same.

An endorsement from John Edwards would carry less weight with Democratic voters. Fewer than one-in-five (18%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate whom Edwards supported; 76% say an Edwards endorsement would not make any difference; and 5% say they would be less likely to for vote a candidate supported by Edwards. Edwards would have more influence with men than with women — 25% vs. 13% say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate Edwards had endorsed.

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 Feb. 11-17 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected Feb. 15-18 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

Limited Interest in Campus Shooting

In other news this week, interest in the economy remained high, in spite of relatively little coverage. Fully 37% of the public followed news about the economy very closely, down slightly from 40% earlier this month. And 15% listed conditions in the U.S. economy as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. The national news media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to the economy.

The shootings at Northern Illinois University which resulted in the death of seven people attracted only modest interest. Roughly a quarter of the public (26%) followed this story very closely, and 15% listed this as their most closely followed story. Interest in this story was only slightly higher than interest in the shooting at a Cleveland, Ohio high school in October 2007, in which only the shooter died (22% followed that story very closely). In April 2007, 45% of the public paid very close attention to the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Only 17% of the public paid very close attention to Congress refusing to renew the Protect America Act, a temporary expansion of the government’s eavesdropping authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The national news media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to this story.

Roger Clemens’ testimony before Congress about his alleged steroid use drew the very close attention of 13% of the public. Public interest in the ongoing saga of steroid use in professional sports has consistently been low, in spite of substantial media coverage. Last week the media devoted 5% of its coverage to the Clemens story, the same amount given to the Illinois shootings.

The end of the Hollywood writers’ strike went largely unnoticed by the public. Only 7% paid very close attention to this story.

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.

Cite this publication: “Campaign Seen as Less Negative than 2004 Contest.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 21, 2008) http://www.people-press.org/2008/02/21/campaign-seen-as-less-negative-than-2004-contest/, accessed on July 23, 2014.