August 27, 2008

Obama’s Background Better Known Than His Issue Positions

Biden Pick a Top Campaign Event

Summary of Findings

As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and frame his campaign message for the fall, many Americans still do not have a clear understanding of where he stands on the issues. Public awareness of Obama’s policy positions has increased modestly over the past month. Still, fewer than half (48%) know a lot or a fair amount about his foreign policy positions, while 51% say they know just some or very little. Somewhat more people (56%) know at least a fair amount about Obama’s economic positions, while 44% know just some or very little.

Americans know more about Obama’s personal history than they do about his policy positions. More than six-in-ten (62%) say they know a lot or a fair amount about his background and qualifications, while 37% say they know just some or very little.

Similarly, more people say they know about John McCain’s background than are aware of his positions on foreign policy and economics. Overall, 64% say they know at least a fair amount about McCain’s background and qualifications; by comparison, 54% say they know a lot or a fair amount about his foreign policy positions and the same percentage (54%) says they are aware of his economic positions.

Democrats are more likely than Republican to say they know about Obama’s personal background and policy positions; the reverse is true for McCain. For their part, independents are more familiar with McCain than they are with Obama – both in terms of the candidates’ foreign policy positions and their personal backgrounds. Among independents, 55% say they know a lot or a fair amount about McCain’s foreign policy positions, while only 42% know at least a fair amount about where Obama stands on foreign policy. Independents are even more familiar with McCain’s background and experience: 67% say they know a lot or a fair amount. Only 56% of independents know as much about Obama’s personal history. On economic policies, independents are equally familiar with both McCain and Obama.

Biden Pick a Major Campaign Event

While the announcement was made in an unconventional manner, news that Barack Obama had chosen Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate spread quickly to the public. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they heard a lot about Obama’s choice this past weekend while another 35% heard a little about it. Just 7% said they heard nothing at all about Obama’s vice presidential selection.

The Biden pick ranks among the top five campaign events of the year. However, somewhat greater percentages heard a lot about Obama securing his party’s nomination in June (73%), his trip to the Middle East and Europe in July and the controversial speeches and statements made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright in May (62% each).

While the Obama campaign announced that Biden would be on the ticket via text messages to the cell phones of Obama supporters, very few Americans actually heard the news that way. The vast majority of Americans heard that Obama had selected Biden either by watching television (51%) or by going online (21%). Relatively few (9%) heard the news on the radio or through talking with others, and even fewer heard about it in the newspaper (6%). A mere 2% of the public (3% of Democrats) first learned that Obama had chosen Biden by receiving a text message on their cell phone.

Many Heard about McCain’s Houses

With much of the media’s focus on his search for a vice president, Obama clearly dominated the campaign coverage last week. According to the Campaign Coverage Index from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), more than three-quarters (78%) of all campaign stories featured the Illinois senator while 56% featured John McCain. In addition, Obama continued to eclipse McCain in the race for public visibility: 77% of the public said Obama was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news over the past week, while just 11% named McCain.

The most prominent storyline on the McCain campaign last week involved an interview with the candidate where he said he was unsure how many houses he and his wife Cindy owned. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) heard a lot about this story and another 26% heard a little about it. Roughly a third (35%) heard nothing at all about McCain’s statement. Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to have heard about the Arizona senator’s many houses.

In terms of public awareness, the McCain real estate story is on par with several other campaign gaffes or controversies. Roughly the same proportion of Americans heard a lot about charges that Obama plagiarized from a speech given by Mass. Governor Deval Patrick (39% heard a lot); Hillary Clinton’s false claims that she had dodged sniper fire on a tarmac in Bosnia (39% heard a lot); and rumors that Obama is a Muslim (38%). However, the McCain statement was nowhere near as widely known as the Rev. Wright controversy (62% heard a lot), Obama’s statement that small town Americans are “bitter” (52%); or rumors that McCain had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist (48%).

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 were collected from August 18-24 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 22-25 from a nationally representative sample of 1,008 adults.

Campaign and Olympics Vie for Public’s Attention

Overall, interest in the presidential campaign was up modestly from earlier this month: 31% followed campaign news very closely and another 36% paid fairly close attention. At the same time, the public remained highly interested in the summer Olympics in Beijing. More than a third (35%) followed news about the Olympics very closely. The same proportion named the Olympics as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week, making it the public’s most closely followed story. Media coverage focused much more heavily on the campaign than on the Olympic Games. According to the News Coverage Index from Pew’s PEJ, 35% of the national newshole was devoted to the presidential campaign while 10% was devoted to the Olympics.

Roughly a quarter of the public (27%) paid very close attention to news about tropical storm Fay, which caused widespread flooding and evacuations in Florida; 14% listed Fay as their most closely followed news story of the week. Interest in the Florida storm was significantly greater than interest in Hurricane Dolly, which hit the Texas coast last month. The national media devoted 7% of its overall coverage to Fay.

Public interest in the ongoing conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia declined somewhat last week: 27% followed this story very closely, down from 35% the previous week. News coverage of the situation in Georgia fell off significantly. Last week the media devoted only 8% of its overall coverage to this story; the previous week the story accounted for 26% of the national newshole.

One-in-four Americans (26%) paid very close attention to news about Iraq last week, but only 4% listed Iraq as their most closely followed story. Relatively few people followed news about the plane crash in Madrid (8% very closely).

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.