June 11, 2008

Most Americans See a Black Nominee as Important for Country

Partisan and Racial Divisions Over Significance of Obama's Win

Summary of Findings

A solid majority of Americans say it as at least somewhat important to the country that an African American has won the presidential nomination of a major political party. But there are wide political and racial divisions over the significance of Barack Obama’s history-making achievement.

Overall, 36% of the public says it is very important to the country that an African American won a major party’s nomination, while another 27% see this as somewhat important. A third of Americans say it is either not too important (15%) or not at all important (18%) that a black candidate has become a major party nominee.

About half of Democrats (51%) say it is very important to the country that an African American has secured the nomination of a major party; that compares with a third of independents (32%) and just 20% of Republicans. Republicans are evenly divided over the importance of this milestone: while 50% view it as either very or somewhat important, nearly as many (48%) say it is not too important (16%) or not at all important (32%).
Nearly six-in-ten blacks (59%) say the nomination of an African American is very important to the country; just 32% of whites express this view. Nearly four-in-ten whites (37%) believe it is not too important (17%) or not at all important (20%) – roughly three times the percentage of blacks (13% not too, not at all important).

Strong Interest in Campaign News

Public interest in the presidential race increased somewhat with last week’s dramatic events. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they followed news about the campaign very closely, up from 30% the previous week. This is the highest level of interest recorded since mid-March. Interest was much higher among Democrats (51% followed very closely) than among Republicans (34%) or independents (27%).

Fully 73% say they heard a lot about Obama winning enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination. That news registered more widely than any other campaign development so far. There also was broad interest in Hillary Clinton’s decision late in the week to suspend her campaign and endorse her Democratic rival. More than half of the public (55%) heard a lot about Clinton’s decision; Clinton’s withdrawal from the race was the third most widely heard about campaign story thus far.

By week’s end, Obama was the top newsmaker among the three leading presidential candidates, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index. Obama was featured prominently in 77% of all campaign news stories while Clinton was featured in 60% of all stories. McCain trailed both Democrats; only 21% of the campaign stories featured the Arizona senator.

Obama was by far the most visible candidate in the news last week. Two-thirds of the public (67%) named Obama as the candidate they’ve been hearing the most about in the news in the past week or so. Roughly one-in-five (22%) named Clinton and just 2% named McCain. While Obama has remained the most visible candidate for 13 straight weeks, he has not dominated Clinton and McCain to this extent since mid-March when he gave his speech on race and politics.

Steady Interest in Gas Prices

The national news media focused heavily on the presidential race last week – devoting 50% of its overall coverage to the campaign, according to PEJ. Public interest was split evenly between the campaign and the rising price of gasoline. Two-thirds of the public paid very close attention to news about gas prices last week – unchanged from the previous week and up moderately from early last month. Fully 37% listed gas prices as the single news story they were following more closely than any other last week, roughly equal to the proportion (36%) naming the campaign as their most closely followed story.

One-in-four Americans paid very close attention to reports about the rising unemployment rate, and 3% listed this as their most closely followed news story of the week. There was relatively little interest in the debate in Congress over legislation to combat global warming. Only 13% followed this story very closely and 2% listed this as their top story of the week.

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 June 2-8 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected June 6-9 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

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.