July 16, 2008

Candidates’ Policy Positions Still Not Widely Known

Jackson's Comments Top Campaign Event of the Week

Summary of Findings

While Barack Obama has been the dominant figure in the presidential campaign, both in press coverage and public visibility, most Americans say they do not know very much about his policy positions. Only 40% say they know a lot or a fair amount about his positions on foreign policy; 59% say they know just some or very little.

These numbers are unchanged from early March. Even among Democrats, just 49% currently know at least a fair amount about Obama’s foreign policy positions, while 50% know just some or very little.

Although John McCain has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign, his positions on this subject are only slightly better known than Obama’s. Currently, 45% say they know a lot or a fair amount about McCain’s positions on foreign policy, while 53% know just some or very little. In March, somewhat more people said they were aware of McCain’s foreign policy stances (52%).

The candidates’ economic policies also are not very well known by the public. Only about half of Americans (49%) say they know a lot or a fair amount about Obama’s economic positions; just 46% say they know at least a fair amount about McCain’s.

Jackson Comments Widely Heard

Nearly half of the public (48%) heard a lot about derogatory remarks that the Rev. Jesse Jackson made last week about Barack Obama. This is nearly as high as the percentage that heard a lot about the videotaped sermons by Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when that story broke in late March (51% heard a lot about the videos).

Jackson’s comments, which were picked up on an open microphone, were a major storyline in news coverage of the campaign last week. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) Campaign Coverage Index, 13% of all campaign coverage was devoted to the fallout from this incident. Among those who were paying very close attention to campaign news, 73% heard a lot about this story.

In other campaign news last week, 28% of the public heard a lot about McCain advisor Phil Gramm suggesting that the U.S has become a nation of “whiners” and that the economy is in a “mental recession.” Another 31% of the public heard a little about his, and 40% heard nothing at all.

Only 17% of Americans say they heard a lot about a television interview that the Obama family granted to Access Hollywood. Nearly half of the public (46%) heard nothing about this. About a quarter of Democrats (26%) heard a lot about this, compared with 12% of Republicans and 13% of independents.

Economy Continues to Dominate Public Interest

While the media continued to focus heavily on the presidential campaign last week, the public was more interested in news about conditions of the U.S. economy. More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) followed economic news very closely last week, down just slightly from a fifteen-year high recorded at the end of June (49% for June 27-30). Nearly three-in-ten (28%) said they followed this story more closely than other news, making the economy the week’s top story.

The campaign was the week’s most heavily covered story, accounting for 29% of all coverage, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. By contrast, news about the economy filled 7% of the newshole.

Public interest in the presidential race remained largely unchanged last week. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) paid very close attention to the campaign and 18% said it was their top story for the week.

News that the Iranian government tested missiles capable of striking Israel attracted the very close attention of one-in-four Americans last week; 10% said this was their most closely followed story. News organizations devoted 5% of the newshole to this story.

This summer’s wildfires in California have not attracted the same level of public attention – or news coverage – as fires in the state last fall. Last week, 22% of the public followed the California fires very closely; 15% said it was their most closely followed story. Last October, 40% said they followed wildfires in California very closely. News coverage of last fall’s fires in California was much more extensive than coverage of the current fires (38% of newshole then vs. 3% currently).

News about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to attract modest interest from the public. Last week, about a quarter of Americans (24%) followed the situation in Iraq very closely and 7% named it as their top story. The military effort in Afghanistan was followed very closely by 19% of the public and 2% said they followed news from Afghanistan most closely. News organizations devoted 3% of all coverage to events in Iraq and 2% of coverage to the war in Afghanistan.

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.