May 1, 2008

Democratic Campaign Taking a Toll on Both Obama and Clinton

McCain Stays Under the Radar

Summary of Findings

Over the past six weeks the intense, and often negative, contest between Obama and Clinton has dominated media coverage of the campaign as well as public attention. And over this period, more Americans have consistently said their views of Obama and Clinton have become less favorable, rather than more favorable, in recent days. In four separate surveys conducted since March 20, when asked about each of the Democratic candidates, between 25%-31% of the public has said their opinions have recently become less favorable. (In each survey, a majority said their opinions of the candidates have not been affected by the campaign.)

Meanwhile, John McCain has received far less attention from the media or the public, and this is reflected in public reactions over this period. Relatively fewer people say their opinion has either improved or worsened. In the latest survey, just 14% say their impression of McCain has become more favorable in recent days, and just 16% say less favorable.

While the public’s immediate reactions have been somewhat negative toward both Democratic candidates, the cumulative effect of this period has been more significant for Obama. The latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll finds Obama’s favorability rating down 4 points and his unfavorable rating up 8 points since March. Clinton’s overall favorability ratings started far lower than Obama’s and have shifted only marginally since March, though other negative ratings of both Clinton and Obama have grown. McCain’s overall favorability ratings, on the other hand, have not declined at all. [See “Obama’s Image Slips, His Lead Over Clinton Disappears” also released May 1, 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.]

Many Democrats Not Sure Primary Process is Working

As the Democratic primary campaign has drawn on, public views about the effectiveness of the primary process have only worsened. In the current survey 39% say this year’s presidential primaries have been a good way of determining who the best qualified nominees are, while 57% say they have not. In February, following the Super Tuesday primaries, opinions were more evenly divided: 43% said the primaries were a good way to determine the best nominees, 52% said they were not.

While views have slipped across party lines, Democrats remain more confident in the primary process than either Republicans or independents. Among Democrats, 46% now say that the primary process is a good way of determining the best qualified nominees, while fewer Republicans (37%) or independents (34%) agree that the primaries are an effective process.

Too Much Campaign Coverage, Too Little Coverage of Other Issues

During the week of the Pennsylvania primary, the national media focused heavily on the presidential campaign. News of the campaign eclipsed most other stories – as the media devoted 44% of its overall coverage to the presidential race, up from 31% the previous week. Public interest ticked up only modestly: 34% followed campaign news very closely up from 29% the previous week. One-in-four listed the campaign as the single news story they followed more closely than any other, placing it on par with rising gas prices. The gap between interest in campaign news and coverage of the campaign is larger than it has been in recent weeks.

Fully half of the public (51%) now says news organizations are giving too much coverage to the campaign. This represents a significant change in opinion from late-January of this year, when 36% said the media was over-covering the campaign and a majority (52%) thought the media was devoting the right amount of coverage to the story. Among Democrats, 47% now say the media is giving the campaign too much coverage, up from 30% in late-January.

There were two stories this past week that the public would like to have heard more about. A majority (54%) says news organizations are giving too little coverage to the global food shortage. Only 8% say this story has received too much coverage and a third say the amount of coverage has been about right. Public interest in this story nearly doubled from the previous week. Roughly a quarter (24%) of the public followed news about the food shortages very closely (up from 14% a week earlier). The national media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to this story compared with 44% of the newshole devoted to the campaign.

Another story which deserves more media attention, according to the public, is the situation in Iraq – 44% say news organizations have been giving too little coverage to this story. In the past, solid pluralities have said the media was devoting the right amount of coverage to the Iraq war. In the current survey, 42% think the amount of coverage is appropriate, only 12% say the story is getting too much coverage. The media devoted 2% of its coverage to the war last week and 9% of the public said the war was the story they followed most closely.

The public is divided over how thoroughly the media covered the acquittal of three New York City police officers in the shooting of an unarmed black man Sean Bell. A plurality (41%) say the media devoted the right amount of coverage to this story, but a substantial minority (32%) say the story deserved more coverage. Blacks were much more likely than whites to say there has been too little coverage of this story (48% of blacks vs. 29% of whites).

A plurality (44%) say the media has devoted the right amount of coverage to the fallout from a raid on a polygamist religious compound in Texas. More than a third (36%) say the media has over-covered this story, and 15% say the story has received too little coverage. One-in-five Americans followed this story very closely last week, unchanged from the previous week. The media devoted 3% of its overall coverage to the story.

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 21-27 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected April 25-28 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

Gas Prices Top News Interest, Public Wants to Know Why They’re So High

People were highly interested in news about rising gas prices last week as the average price of a gallon of gasoline reached a record high. More than six-in-ten Americans (62%) said that they were following news about rising gas prices very closely, significantly higher than at approximately this time period last year (48% in mid-May). Public interest in news about gas prices is comparable to April, 2006 when 65% were following gas prices very closely.

The rising prices of gasoline rivaled the presidential campaign for the news story Americans were following more closely than any other last week, something that few other stories have done during the presidential primary season. Roughly three-in-ten Americans (27%) said that gas prices was their most closely followed story, while a comparable 25% were most interested in the presidential campaign. The national news media devoted 2% of overall coverage to gas prices. Stories about the condition of the economy were the only other news item so far this year to receive as much public attention as news about the presidential campaign. During the week of March 24-30, 31% of the public followed news about the campaign most closely, while a comparable 28% were most interested in news about the U.S. economy.

When asked to identify what they are most interested in learning from news about gas prices, more than half of Americans (53%) say they are interested in learning why gas prices are rising, while another third (32%) are most interested in knowing about the impact of gas prices on the national economy. Only 11% of the public are most interested in knowing the price of gas in their area. Compared with a year ago the public expresses more interest in the causes of changing gas prices. Last May, 40% of Americans said they were most interested in learning about why gas prices were fluctuating, another three-in-ten were most interested in the effects on the economy and 24% were most interested in the local price of gas.

Hillary’s Pennsylvania Victory Widely Known

Although only a third of the public followed campaign news very closely last week, an overwhelming majority (79%) knew that Hillary Clinton had won the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is much higher than the percentage that knew Clinton had won most of the March 4th primaries, which included Ohio and Texas (55%). It also exceeds the percentage who knew about her widely publicized win in the New Hampshire primary (67%).

Many Americans
are also paying close attention to what lies ahead for the two remaining Democratic candidates. Nearly half (47%) could name at least one of the states which will hold a primary on May 6. A third correctly identified Indiana and 28% named North Carolina. In early April, with two weeks to go before the Pennsylvania primary, 41% correctly identified that state as the site of the next big Democratic primary.

The Democratic candidates continue to dominate public attention. In the current poll, 46% of the public said Obama is the candidate they’ve heard the most about in the news lately, and 38% named Clinton. Only 3% said McCain is the candidate they had heard the most about in the past week or so. This is consistent with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) measure of campaign coverage by the national media. According to PEJ, the Democrats dominated campaign coverage by a margin of 81%-11%. Obama was the most heavily covered candidate last week – he was featured prominently in 70% of all campaign stories. Clinton was featured in 64% of campaign stories, and McCain was featured in 17%.

A majority of the public continues to say the press has been fair in the way it has covered the two Democratic candidates. Some 57% say press coverage of Clinton has been fair, up marginally from 55% last month. The remainder of the public is evenly split with 20% saying the press has been too easy on Clinton and 18% saying it has been to tough.

Similarly, a narrow majority (52%) say the press has been fair in its coverage of Obama. Those who do see press bias in the coverage of Obama are more likely to say the press has been too easy on the Illinois Senator (26%) than too hard (17%).

The perception that McCain is receiving fair coverage is even more widespread – 65% of the public say the press has been fair in the way it has covered the Arizona senator. One-in-five say the press is being too easy on McCain, only 8% say the coverage has been too tough.

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.