April 24, 2008

More Americans View Campaign As Too Negative

Obama’s “Bitter” Comment Registers Widely

Summary of Findings

Interest in what the public perceives as an excessively negative presidential campaign declined in the days leading up to the Pennsylvania primary. Just 29% of Americans say they paid very close attention to news about the presidential campaign last week, the lowest percentage recorded since December 2007. By comparison, 43% said they were following campaign news very closely during the weekend leading up to the March primaries in Texas and Ohio. Interest in the campaign has fallen among Republicans, Democrats and independents. In late February, more than half of Democrats were following campaign news very closely; that number has fallen to 38%.

Perceptions about the tone of the campaign also have changed dramatically over the past two months. In mid-February, 28% said that the campaign was too negative, while 66% said it was not too negative. The balance of opinion has shifted: 50% now say the campaign is too negative, while 44% say it is not.

Democrats’ views of the tone of the campaign have changed substantially since February. Currently, half of Democrats (50%) say the campaign has been too negative, more than double the proportion saying this in February (19%). Democrats are now about as likely as Republicans and independents to say the campaign is too negative; in February, they were much less likely than Republicans and independents to express this view.

While an increasing percentage of Americans sees the campaign as too negative, more also say it is dull and too long. About a third (35%) says the campaign is dull, up from 25% in February. The percentage saying the campaign is interesting has fallen from 70% in February to 59% currently. Democrats continue to find the campaign more interesting than do Republicans or independents (73% of Democrats vs. 56% of Republicans and 53% of independents).

Nearly two-thirds of the public (65%) now says the campaign is too long, up from 57% in mid-February. Republicans are more likely than independents or Democrats to say the campaign is too long. Even among Democrats, however, a 57% majority sees the campaign as too long.

Diminished interest in the presidential campaign reflects not only changing views about the tone and content of the campaign but also declining news coverage of the presidential race. While media coverage of the campaign has fluctuated from week to week based on events, the overall amount of coverage is considerably less now than in February and March. During the month of February, national news organizations devoted, on average, nearly half of their weekly coverage to the campaign, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) News Coverage Index. In March, that average fell to below 40%.

For the first three weeks of April, campaign coverage constituted only about 30% of the overall newshole. Last week, the media devoted 31% of its coverage to the campaign. Cable TV news and talk radio devoted much more time to the campaign than other media sectors. By contrast, network TV news and online news sources divided their news coverage equally between the campaign and Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S.

Obama’s Statements Dominate Campaign Landscape

The fallout from Barack Obama’s statement that some small town Americans cling to guns and religion because they are bitter about their economic situation was a dominant theme in the national media’s campaign coverage last week. According to the PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, fully a quarter of all campaign coverage last week focused on this storyline.

In terms of public awareness, the controversy surrounding Obama’s statement has become one of the biggest political events of the campaign so far. More than half of the public (52%) says they heard a lot about Obama’s statement. By comparison, 54% heard about Obama’s March speech on race and politics, and 51% heard a lot about the videos of Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Recent campaign occurrences involving Hillary Clinton have not registered as widely as these events. Four-in-ten said they heard a lot about Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro’s controversial comments about Obama and race while about the same percentage (39%) said they heard a lot about Clinton’s claims that she came under sniper fire in Bosnia.

The other dominant campaign story of the week was the debate in Philadelphia between Obama and Clinton; 22% of all campaign coverage was about the debate. Roughly four-in-ten Americans say they heard a lot about the debate (42%), while 24% reported actually watching the debate. More Americans say they watched the Philadelphia debate that aired on ABC than either of the CNN/YouTube debates in November (15%) or last July (13%).

Chelsea Clinton has played an active role in her mother’s campaign for the presidency, but only 19% say they have heard a lot about Clinton’s campaign activities. Women are somewhat more likely than men to say they have heard a lot about Chelsea’s Clinton involvement in her mother’s campaign (23% vs. 15%).

Candidate Images Largely Unchanged

Most Americans (54%) said their opinion of Obama had not changed in the days before the survey. About a quarter (24%) said they had come to have a less favorable opinion of the Illinois Democrat, while 18% said their opinion of him had grown more favorable. In late March, following the emergence of the Wright controversy and Obama’s speech on race, somewhat more (30%) said they had come to have a less favorable opinion of Obama, but a greater proportion also said their opinion had become more positive (22%).

A majority (55%) also said their opinion of Clinton was unchanged, but more reported feeling less favorably toward Clinton in recent days than toward Obama (31% Clinton vs. 24% Obama). About three times as many said they had a less favorable view of her in recent days (31%) than said they had a more favorable view of the New York senator (11%). These numbers also have not changed materially since late March, when 30% said they had come to have a less favorable opinion of Clinton recently.

More than a quarter of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they had a less favorable impression of Clinton recently, compared with just 15% who said they hade a more favorable opinion. Slightly fewer Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (24%) said their opinion of John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, had become less favorable than said that about Clinton.

As is the case with Obama and Clinton, most Americans (61%) said their opinion of McCain had not changed recently. About as many said that their opinion of John McCain had grown more favorable as less favorable (18% vs. 15%). However, a relatively large minority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (40%) said they had come to feel more favorable toward McCain in recent days.

Obama Again Most Visible

For the sixth straight week, Barack Obama was the most visible presidential candidate. Fully 55% of the public named Sen. Obama as the candidate they have been hearing the most about in the news in the last week, while about half that number named Clinton (28%) and just 4% named McCain. Public visibility for the three leading candidates was consistent with the amount of news coverage they received, according to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index (April 14-20). Obama was featured in 76% of all campaign stories, Clinton in 59%, and McCain in just 24%.

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 April 14-20 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected April 18-21 from a nationally representative sample of 1,009 adults.

Interest in Economy Rivals Campaign

Economic news remained high on the public’s agenda last week with 41% of Americans saying they followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. More than one-in-five called economic news their top story of the week, despite the fact that the national media paid relatively little attention to the story. Economic news filled only 5% of the newshole last week, well behind coverage of the 2008 campaign, the Pope’s visit and the raid on a polygamist religious compound in Texas.

The Texas raid stayed in the news for a second straight week and public interest in the story increased somewhat. One-in-five (20%) followed the story very closely and 16% called the raid their most closely followed story of the week. Women, people with no greater than a high school education, and residents of the South were all more likely than other groups to have been following the story very closely.

Public interest in the Iraq war remained consistent last week. About three-in-ten (29%) say they followed news from Iraq very closely, while 13% say it was their top news story of the week. Those numbers are largely unchanged from the previous week.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. was the media’s second biggest story of the week, but generated only modest public interest. Overall, 13% followed news about the pope’s visit very closely and 6% called it their top story.

Reports about a worldwide food shortage also drew relatively little interest. The story drew the very close attention from 14% of the public, while just 4% named the food shortages as their top story of the week. The national media devoted 1% of its overall coverage to the 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.