March 17, 2010

Health Care Debate Dominates Interest and Coverage

More Democrats See Health Reform Passing

Summary of Findings

As President Obama and Democratic leaders mounted what was characterized as the final push to pass health care reform legislation last week, the public followed the health care debate more closely than any other major story (33% say they followed this story most closely). The debate also topped media coverage.

The percentage of Americans who say they think Congress will pass health care legislation this year edged up to 43%, but about half (49%) still say lawmakers will not pass a bill in 2010.

Among Democrats, 61% now say they think a health care reform bill will pass this year, up from 49% one week earlier. Only 27% of Republicans and 38% of independents say they think a bill will pass, unchanged from the previous week, according to the latest News Interest Index survey, conducted March 12-15 among 1,019 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Most Unaware of Votes Needed for Health Care Bill

Most Americans say they have heard at least a little about the tactics contemplated by congressional Democrats and Republicans for the showdown over the health care legislation. Still, only a third (33%) correctly answer that the next major step in the Senate is likely to require 51 votes, not 60 – the number needed to break a Republican filibuster. Close to half (46%) say they have not heard about this procedural issue.

Among those who say they are following the health care debate very closely, about half (51%) correctly say that a simple majority – 51 votes – is expected to be needed for a Senate vote on changes to the bill first passed by the chamber just before Christmas. Just 21% of those following less closely say this.

There is little difference among partisans in the number saying that 51 votes are likely to be required in the Senate. Men are more likely than women to say this (40% vs. 26%), college graduates are more likely than those with a high school diploma or less schooling (41% vs. 21%) and those 65 and older are more likely to say this than those 39 or younger (48% vs. 23%).

Meanwhile, four-in-ten say they have heard a lot about the legislative approach Democrats might use to try to pass the health care bill; 43% say they have heard a little about this and 16% say they have heard nothing at all. About a third (34%) say they have heard a lot about the legislative approach Republicans might use to block the bill. Another 47% say they have heard a little about this and 19% say they have heard nothing at all.

Half of Republicans say they heard a lot about expected Democratic strategy, compared with 36% of Democrats and 39% of independents. Fewer Republicans (33%) say they heard a lot about their own party’s strategy, compared with 40% of Democrats. About three-in-ten independents (31%) say they heard a lot about this.

Not surprisingly, those following the debate very closely are much more likely than those following less closely to have heard about the potential strategies. More than six-in-ten of those following very closely (62%) say they have heard a lot about the approach the Democrats might use, compared with 26% of those following less closely. More than half (52%) of those following very closely say they heard a lot about the approach Republicans might use to block the bill, compared with 23% of those following less closely.

Dems More Optimistic About Passage

Shortly after Republican Scott Brown won the Jan. 19 special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, the percentage of Americans saying a health care bill would pass this year dropped sharply from 57% to 27%. It has been inching up since mid-February, as Democratic lawmakers have worked to find a way to enact Obama’s top legislative priority.

Currently 43% say the bill will pass, not significantly larger than the 39% one week earlier, but 16 points greater than the 27% recorded Feb. 19-22. The increase over the past week has come entirely among Democrats. Currently, 61% of Democrats say they think a health care reform bill will pass this year, up from 49% a week earlier. The numbers of Republicans and independents who say this was unchanged.

There also was no change in the perceptions of those following the debate very closely. Among those following less closely, 41% now think a bill will pass, up from 34% the previous week.

Health Care and Economy Remain Top Stories

About four-in-ten say they followed news about health care reform (40%) or the economy (41%) very closely last week. A third say they followed news about the health care debate more closely than any other story, while 18% say they followed news about the economy most closely.

Those two stories also received the most coverage, according to a separate analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Reporting about health care accounted for 19% of the newshole, while stories about the economy made up 12%.

Close to a quarter (23%) very closely followed news about problems with sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles; 12% say this was the story they followed most closely. Toyota’s troubles accounted for 5% of the newshole. About two-in-ten (18%) say they followed news about the earthquake aftershocks in Chile very closely; 12% say this was the story they followed most closely. News about the aftershocks accounted for 1% of the newshole.

Just over two-in-ten (22%) say they followed events in Iraq very closely, while 7% say they followed this news more closely than any other major story. News about Iraq and the most recent elections there accounted for 3% of the newshole.

Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) say they very closely followed news about the resignation of New York Congressman Eric Massa amid allegations of improper conduct with staff members. This story accounted for 5% of the newshole, but just 1% say this was the story they followed most closely last week.

About four-in-ten (39%) say the Massa story received too much attention, though 32% say it received the right amount. About three-in-ten (31%) say the Toyota story received too much attention, but a majority (53%) says this story received the right amount of coverage.

Significant minorities thought the media devoted too little attention last week to both Iraq (39%) and health care reform (36%). Still, pluralities (46% each) say the stories received the right amount of coverage.

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 coverage. 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 March 8-14, and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected March 12-15 from a nationally representative sample of 1,019 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 Monday through Sunday) PEJ compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects 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 landline 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 4 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.