September 25, 2008

McCain’s Image Faltered in Week of Wall Street Woes

Public Looking Forward to Debate

Summary of Findings

Views of John McCain turned somewhat more negative last week, amid record public interest in economic news. In a survey conducted Sept. 19-22, fully half of the public said their opinion of the GOP nominee had changed in the past few days, with 30% saying their opinion has become less favorable and only 20% saying their view has become more favorable. McCain’s public image had improved significantly the week he chose Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate and the week of the GOP convention.

While partisan views of McCain have remained relatively stable over this period, the balance of opinion among independents has shifted significantly. In the most recent poll, 30% of independents say their opinion of McCain has become less favorable in recent days, while 18% say their opinion has become more favorable. By comparison, the previous week only 21% of independents said their opinion of McCain had become less favorable and 28% said their view of him had become more favorable.

Views of Obama were more stable last week and have generally fluctuated less than have views of McCain in recent weeks. Overall, 25% of the public say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable in recent days, while 20% say their opinion has become less favorable; 53% say their opinion of the Democratic nominee had not changed recently.

The survey finds considerable public interest in Friday’s scheduled presidential debate, which was cast into doubt by McCain’s Sept. 24 announcement that he is suspending his presidential campaign. Fully 58% of Americans say they are very likely to watch the debate, while 24% said they are somewhat likely to tune in. More than six-in-ten Democrats (63%) and nearly as many Republicans say they are very likely to watch the debate. While independents are somewhat less likely to tune in, a majority (54%) say they are very likely to watch.

There is no clear consensus as to which candidate will deliver the best performance in the University of Mississippi debate: About four-in-ten (42%) think McCain will do the best job in Friday’s debate, while 39% say Obama will do better. Republicans and Democrats line up solidly behind their respective party nominees in making predictions about the outcome of the debate. However, independents give McCain a slight edge: 42% say McCain will do the best job in the debate, 31% choose Obama.

Many Expect Market Turmoil to Affect Personal Finances

The survey finds that the Wall Street financial crisis is triggering widespread concern among the public. Fully 71% say they think the problems on Wall Street will affect their own personal financial situation a great deal or some. And 39% say as a result of what has been happening with the economy, they have changed the way their money is saved or invested.

A third of Americans (32%) say they expect that the stock market’s troubles will affect their personal finances a great deal, while another 39% expect the market turmoil to affect them some. Only about quarter (27%) say their finances will not be affected much, or at all, by Wall Street’s troubles.

Those who currently have money in the stock market – particularly active traders – are more likely to say that troubles on Wall Street will affect their personal finances than are those who have no money in the stock market. Nearly half of active traders (46%) – who comprise 7% of the public who trade stocks pretty regularly – say they expect that the current market upheaval will affect their personal finances a great deal. That compares with 32% of passive investors (those with long-term investments who do not regularly trade stocks); and 28% of non-investors.

From Wall Street to Main Street

The current economic situation has caused many Americans to make changes in their spending and saving practices. Roughly half of Americans (48%) say they have cut back on vacation spending, while 39% say they have changed the way their money is saved or invested as a result of what’s been happening in the economy lately.

Three-in-ten Americans say they have delayed or cancelled plans to make a major household purchase, such as a computer or appliance; an additonal 29% say they have delayed or scrapped plans to buy a new home or make major home improvements. Nearly a quarter (23%) say the problems with the economy have caused them to put off or cancel plans to buy a new car, while the same percentage reports adjusting their retirement plans.

News of the Week: Wall Street and Weather

For the public, the events on Wall Street and news about the economy were clearly the dominant stories. Fully 47% cited either Wall Street turmoil (27%) or reports on the economy (20%) as the story they followed most closely last week. While there was considerable interest in the campaign, far fewer people (20%) cited this as their top story of the week.

The national news media divided its attention between the campaign and the economic crisis last week. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), 37% of the national newshole was devoted to the turmoil on Wall Street and the government’s response while 31% was focused on the campaign.

For the first time in the general election period, John McCain was the top campaign newsmaker. According to PEJ, McCain was featured prominently in 65% of all campaign stories while Obama was featured in 59% of the stories. Coverage of Sarah Palin fell off considerably – 26% of campaign stories featured Palin compared with 53% the previous week.

The public’s news menu was extensive last week. Aside from the economy and the campaign, 42% say they followed news about the impact of Hurricane Ike; 21% cite this as the story they followed most closely last 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 were collected from September 15-21 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 19-22 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 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 natio
nwide 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.