March 13, 2008

Public Closely Tracking Details of Campaign

38% Have Heard a Lot about

Summary of Findings

Not only are Americans following election news in record numbers this year, they are tracking the details of the campaign — the charges, countercharges and controversial advertisements — extremely closely. Large majorities say they have heard at least something about rumors that Barack Obama is a Muslim; Hillary Clinton’s 3:00 a.m. phone call ad; and George Bush’s endorsement of John McCain. And the revelation that a top foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama had referred to Clinton as a “monster,” a one-day story at best, registered with a large percentage of the public.

The most widely recognized item tested in the survey was rumors that Obama, who has made clear that he is a Christian, is actually a Muslim. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) have heard a lot about these rumors, while 41% have heard at least a little about them.

The public is nearly twice as likely to be aware of these rumors as to have heard about Obama’s connections to a Chicago businessman, Tony Rezko, who is currently on trial for corruption. Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to have heard about the Muslim rumors.

Fully 38% of the public has heard a lot about Clinton’s ad that raised the issue of which candidate is most qualified to answer the phone at 3:00 a.m. in a national emergency. Nearly half of residents of the South (45%) say they have heard a lot about this, which aired only in Texas. But even in the West, where no primaries were held last week, 30% have heard a lot about it. Nearly equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats are aware of the ad.

More than a third of the public (36%) has heard a lot about Bush’s endorsement of McCain, 39% have heard a little about this. Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to have heard about the endorsement.

News that one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisors, Samantha Power, referred to Clinton as a “monster” in a newspaper interview reached a large segment of the public. Power quickly resigned from the campaign after the comment was revealed. About three-in-ten (29%) say they heard a lot about this and 34% heard a little. Roughly a third heard nothing at all.

One-in-five Americans have heard a lot about Obama’s ties to Rezko, the Chicago businessman; 35% have heard a little about this. Among those who are following the campaign very closely, a third has heard a lot about Obama’s connections to Rezko. Among those who are not paying as close attention to the campaign, only 12% have heard a lot about this. More than half (55%) haven’t heard anything at all.

Roughly half of the public says they have heard at least a little about calls for Clinton to release her tax returns (19% have heard a lot, 33% have heard a little). Fewer are familiar with an ad featuring Jack Nicholson praising Clinton (9% have heard a lot, 27% have heard a little). More Democrats than Republicans have heard about the Nicholson ad.

Most Think Superdelegates will Pick Nominee

A 56% majority of the public says that superdelegates will ultimately pick the Democratic nominee for president. Only 26% believe either Clinton or Obama will win enough support in the state primaries and caucuses to win the nomination outright. Democrats are more closely divided than Republicans over what the outcome of the nomination process will be. Even so, 51% of Democrats say the superdelegates will end up picking the nominee. Among those who have been following campaign news very closely, nearly two-thirds (65%) say superdelegates will have the final say.

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 March 3-9 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected March 7-10 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

Clinton and Obama Tied in Coverage and Visibility

With the Republican nomination settled, media coverage of the campaign focused heavily on the Democratic candidates last week. Clinton and Obama received roughly the same amount of coverage from the national media. The two candidates also were in a virtual tie in terms of public visibility.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index, Clinton was featured prominently in 60% of all campaign stories, and Obama was featured in 58%. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) named Obama as the candidate they had heard the most about in the news in the last week or so, while 37% pointed to Clinton.

McCain trailed far behind the Democrats both in terms of coverage and visibility. During the week in which he shored up his party’s nomination, the Arizona senator was featured prominently in 26% of all campaign stories, and only 6% of the public said he was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news.

Both Republicans and Democrats were far more likely to name Obama or Clinton than to cite McCain as the most visible candidate last week. Candidate visibility differed along gender lines. A greater share of women than men cited Hillary Clinton (43% vs. 31%), and conversely more men than women named Obama (42% vs. 34%).

Overall, 39% of the public paid very close attention to news about the campaign last week, down slightly from 43% the previous week. Nearly half of the public (46%) listed the campaign as the single news story they followed more closely than any other.

Few Surprised by Clinton March 4 Wins

A majority of the public (55%) could correctly identify Hillary Clinton as the candidate who won most of the primary contests held on Tuesday, March 4 .1 However, more Americans could name the winners in early presidential contests in New Hampshire (67% correctly named Clinton) and Iowa (71% correctly named Obama).

Knowledge of who won the most Democratic primaries varied by gender, education, age and by how closely one followed news about the campaign. Men and women each followed the campaign equally closely last week; however men were somewhat more likely than women to correctly identify Clinton as the candidate who won more of the primaries on March 4th. College graduates were better able to answer this question than those with less education; and similarly, Americans over age 50 were better informed than those under 50. Not surprisingly, Americans who followed the campaign very closely were more likely to know that Clinton had more victories than those who were paying less attention to news about the campaign.

Most of those who knew that Hillary Clinton won most of the primaries on March 4 were not surprised by her victories; although pre-election polls, particularly those in Ohio and Texas, showed close races between Clinton and Obama. Only 39% of those who knew that Clinton won more of the March 4 primaries than Obama were surprised by the election results; 59% were not surprised. Half or more of several key voting groups evaluated in this study said that they were not surprised by the outcome; including, men and women and Republicans and Democrats.

Oil Prices Draw Large Audience

There was bad economic news for consumers last week, as both oil prices and home mortgage foreclosures reached record highs. Public interest in these stories was substantial during a week filled mostly with campaign news.

More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) say they followed news about the rising price of oil very closely last week. Aside from the presidential campaign, oil prices were cited most often as the news story the public followed more closely than any other (17%). Interest in this story was high despite the fact that national news organizations devoted only 1% of the total news coverage to this story. Public interest in news about oil prices is comparable to November 2007, when oil reached $100 per barrel for the first time. At that time, 44% of Americans were following news about oil prices very closely (23% most closely that week).

Roughly three-in-ten Americans (28%) say they paid very close attention to reports that home mortgage foreclosures reached an all-time high during the last quarter of 2007. The news media devoted 3% of the newshole to reports about record home foreclosures.

Public interest in news about the war in Iraq has remained steady for several months. Last week, 28% of Americans followed news about Iraq very closely and 10% said it was their most closely followed story.

Continued violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis in both Gaza and Jerusalem did not register highly with the American public. One-in-five followed Israeli-Palestinian tensions very closely and just 3% listed this as their top 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.