May 14, 2008

Public Says Press Should Not Declare Obama the Winner

Most Aware of Calls for Clinton to Withdraw

Summary of Findings

Barack Obama may be building an insurmountable lead in the Democratic primary race, but the public is sending a strong message to journalists and pundits: It is too early to declare, as some already have, that the race is over.

Fully 72% of the public – including comparable percentages of Democrats, Republicans and independents – say that journalists should not be anointing Obama as the Democratic nominee at this stage in the race. Just 20% say that journalists should be doing this.

Opinion among Democrats about what the press should do in this regard may well reflect their view that Hillary Clinton should stay in the race. Recent surveys by Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post find that most Democrats believe that Clinton should stay in the race. In the ABC News/Washington Post survey, released May 12, 64% of Democrats, including 42% of Obama supporters, said Clinton should remain in the race.

The presidential campaign once again dominated the national news last week, with 46% of the newshole devoted to the race. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index, this represented the biggest single week of election coverage since the week of the Texas and Ohio primaries in early March.

Public interest in the campaign was up moderately: 35% followed campaign news very closely up from 27% the week before. Clinton generated her highest level of campaign coverage for the year thus far (70% of all campaign stories featured Clinton), edging out Obama (at 67%), according to PEJ. However, Obama remained the most visible candidate in the eyes of the public.

Since mid-March, the amount of news coverage devoted to Clinton compared to Obama has fluctuated in concert with events on the campaign trail. However Obama has consistently been the more visible candidate to the public. On average, more than half of the public has pointed to Obama as the candidate they have heard the most about in the news recently. About 30%, on average, have named Clinton. Consistently, fewer than 10% have named John McCain as the most visible candidate in the news during this period.

Most Aware of Primary Endgame Debate

After what was clearly not a good week for the Clinton campaign, both in terms of press coverage and primary results, overall opinions of Clinton grew somewhat less favorable. While 61% of the public said their views of Clinton had not changed in recent days, 25% said their opinion of the former first lady had become less favorable and only 12% said their opinion had become more favorable. There was no net change for Obama: 55% said their views of the Illinois senator had not changed in recent days, 20% said their opinion had become more favorable and 23% said it was less favorable. As in previous weeks, opinions of McCain remain largely unchanged.

An overwhelming percentage of Americans have heard at least a little about the debate over whether Hillary Clinton should end her campaign now, or stay in the race until the primaries are completed. More than half (52%) have heard a lot about this and 33% have heard a little. Only 15% have heard nothing at all.

By contrast, the public is far less aware of recent efforts by talk show host Rush Limbaugh to prolong the Democratic nomination race by encouraging his listeners to vote for Clinton over Obama in the primaries. Just 14% of the public, including 18% of Republicans, heard a lot about what Limbaugh called “Operation Chaos;” another 28% of the public heard a little about this. More than half of the public (58%) said they heard nothing about this.

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 May 5-11 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected May 9-12 from a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults.

Continuing Interest in Economy

In other news last week, the public continued to pay close attention to reports about the U.S. economy. Fully 45% followed news about the economy very closely and 25% listed this as the single news story they followed more closely than any other. The national media devoted 5% of its overall coverage to the economy.

The cyclone that struck Burma resulting in devastating loss of life and property was the second most heavily covered news story of the week. The media devoted 15% of its coverage to this story.

Public interest in this story was modest, especially when compared with the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. About a quarter of the public (23%) tracked news about the cyclone very closely, with 15% saying it was their top story of the week. In January 2005, 58% of the public said they followed the tsunami’s aftermath very closely.

Despite very little news coverage of the situation in Iraq, 29% of the public continued to follow the war very closely. Public interest in news about the war has remained fairly stable over the past year, even as coverage has fluctuated significantly.

News about Jenna Bush’s recent wedding in Crawford, Texas was closely guarded by the White House. With little press coverage of the May 10 wedding, just 4% say they followed the event very closely, and another 7% followed it fairly closely. Republicans expressed more interest in the nuptials than did Democrats or independents; 21% of Republicans say they followed the wedding very or fairly closely, compared with 8% of Democrats and 9% of independents.

Who’s Watching American Idol?

As the seventh season of American Idol wraps up, 19% of the public is paying close attention to the show – 12% are following Idol very closely and 7% are following fairly closely. The percentage closely following Idol is down slightly from 22% at this point in the season last year.

Last year women were more likely than men to be paying close attention to American Idol. This year that gap has narrowed – 21% of women and 17% of men are following the show very or fairly closely. The falloff in female viewers has been exclusively among those under age 50.

Only 17% of those under age 30 say they’re following Idol very or fairly closely, down somewhat from 26% last year. The show, which is popular with children as well as adults, continues to draw in more parents than non-parents. Nearly a quarter of those with children under age 18 living in their household are closely following Idol (23%), compared with 16% of non-parents.

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.