November 6, 2008

Election Weekend News Interest Hits 20-Year High

Top Events of Campaign 2008

Summary of Findings

As the long presidential campaign wound down last week, the public remained highly engaged. Fully 60% of registered voters said they were following campaign news very closely, while 28% said they were following fairly closely. That is the highest level of voter interest just before a presidential election since the Pew Research Center began tracking campaign news interest in 1988.

The final Pew Research Center Weekly News Interest Index of the campaign finds that the public continued to hear a great deal about Joe the Plumber, the Ohio man who became nationally known after he confronted Barack Obama about his tax proposal. More than half of Americans (55%) say they heard a lot about ‘Joe’ campaigning with John McCain. Among other events last week, stories about long lines at early voting sites also registered widely (54% heard a lot).

A review of more than 75 campaign events since late 2007 shows that the top stories include a mix of historic moments, political gaffes, and the emergence of Joe the Plumber (Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher), perhaps the year’s most unlikely political celebrity. The top event occurred in June, when Obama locked up the Democratic nomination. Nearly three-quarters of the public (73%) said they heard a lot about that event.

On a very different note, nearly as many Americans (69%) heard a lot about the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s unwed teenage daughter, which was announced shortly after McCain named his vice-presidential running mate. A few weeks later, as Congress considered legislation to address the worsening financial crisis, 65% of the public heard about McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign and his call to postpone the first presidential debate.

The fourth most heard about event of the campaign was McCain’s introduction of Joe the Plumber at the third debate. Nearly two-thirds of the public (64%) heard a lot about Joe the Plumber that week.

Overall, events involving Obama dominate the list. Fully 13 of the top 25 campaign events involve the Democrat’s campaign, while eight involve McCain’s. And of those eight, four center more on Palin than McCain himself.

Obama’s July trip to the Middle East and Europe was widely heard about – 62% heard a lot about the trip and another 28% heard a little about it. In May, an equal percentage said they had heard a lot about the speeches and statements made by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. More than half of the public (54%) heard a lot about Obama’s March speech on race and politics made in response to the initial Wright controversy.

In addition, a few Obama gaffes or controversies made the list of top campaign events. Some 55% heard a lot about Obama’s comment — aimed at McCain proposals — about putting “lipstick on a pig,” and 52% heard a lot about his talk of the bitterness of small town Americans. Half of the public heard a lot about Obama’s association with William Ayers, while 48% heard a lot about connections to ACORN and its voter registration efforts.

A majority of Americans (56%) heard a lot about Palin’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” In fact, just as many heard a lot about her SNL appearance as heard about her selection for the GOP ticket. And last month, more than half (52%) heard a lot about the Republican National Committee spending about $150,000 on new clothes for Palin.

While many of the top campaign events registered widely with both Republicans and Democrats, certain events may have had more resonance depending on party affiliation. Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to have heard a lot about McCain selecting Palin as his running mate. Republicans also heard more about Obama’s overseas trip and his ties to ACORN. Democrats, meanwhile, were more likely to have heard a lot about the long lines for early voting, Obama’s 30-minute political ad and Palin’s SNL appearance.

Obama Most Visible Candidate throughout Most of Campaign

Throughout the general election campaign, Pew’s Weekly News Interest Index asked Americans which candidate they had been hearing the most about in the news in the last week or so. Obama dominated McCain by a roughly seven-to-one margin through most of the summer. McCain was the more visible on only two occasions: the week of the Republican convention and the week immediately following. From that point on, Obama gradually rebuilt his lead. Last week, 64% of the public said Obama was the candidate they had been hearing the most about in the news; only16% named McCain.

While Americans consistently said they were hearing more about Obama than McCain, news coverage of the candidates was more balanced. Early in the summer, the media devoted significantly more coverage to Obama than to McCain, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). By late August, though, the two candidates were receiving roughly the same amount of national news coverage.

Public perceptions of Obama’s visibility tracked closely with media coverage of his campaign. For McCain, even in the post convention period when his coverage was comparable to coverage of Obama, public perceptions of his visibility were considerably lower.

With polls showing Obama running strongly in the last days of the campaign, the Democrat dominated in both coverage and visibility. According to Pew’s PEJ, Obama was featured prominently in 70% of campaign stories; McCain was featured in 52%.

Shifting Images of the Candidates

The Weekly News Interest Index asked respondents each week whether their opinions of the candidates had become more or less favorable in recent days. During the last six weeks of the campaign, changing views of Obama were, on balance, more positive than negative. In interviews conducted Oct. 31-Nov. 3, Obama broke even – 25% of the public said their opinion of the Democratic nominee had become more favorable in recent days and an equal percentage said their view of him had become less favorable.

McCain’s image, meanwhile, worsened in recent weeks. From mid-September through the end of October, shifting views of McCain were more often negative than positive. In the most recent poll, 22% said their view of McCain has become more favorable in recent days, while 24% said their opinion of him had become less favorable.

Since her introduction in late August, views of Sarah Palin were among the most fluid. Majorities of the public consistently said that their opinion of her had changed in recent days. In most cases, the changing views were largely unfavorable. The big exception was the week of the vice presidential debate. In interviews conducted after the debate, 37% said their opinion of Palin had become more favorable in recent days, while 33% said their opinion had become less favorable.

Views of Joe Biden were more stable. For the most part, solid majorities reported weekly that their opinion of the Delaware senator had not changed in recent days. As with Palin, the week after the vice presidential debate was the only exception. Following the debate, 34% said their opinion of Biden had become more favorable, while 20% said it had become less favorable.

McCain Ads Seen as More Negative than Obama’s

In the final days of the contest, the public saw the campaign commercials run by McCain as significantly more negative than the ads run by Obama. Four-in-ten said they had seen McCain ads that were “mostly a negative message about Obama,” while about two-in-ten (21%) said they had seen Obama ads that were mostly negative about McCain.

Compared to mid-September, many more Americans in the most recent survey said they had seen commercials for either candidate. Fully 77% said they had seen an Obama ad “in the past few days,” up from 54% shortly after the party conventions. And 71% said they had seen a McCain ad – up from 58% in September. The current survey was conducted shortly after Obama broadcast a widely-watched, half-hour commercial that focused on his agenda and life story.

On balance, Obama’s ads are seen as mostly presenting a positive image about the candidate (49%), rather than a negative message about McCain (21%). In September, the public was almost evenly divided about the tone of Obama’s ads, with 24% saying they had seen mostly positive ads about Obama and 25% saying they had seen ads with mostly negative messages about McCain. In the current survey, only 9% of Democrats said they had seen an Obama ad that was mostly negative about McCain, compared with 33% of Republicans and 24% of independents.

Impressions of McCain’s ads also shifted significantly since September. More now say his ads have been negative than in the earlier survey. Fully 40% said they had seen ads in the past few days that were mostly negative about Obama and about a quarter (24%) said they had seen commercials that were mostly positive about the Republican. In September, 27% said the ads were mostly negative about Obama, while 25% said they were mostly positive about McCain.

In the current survey, half of Democrats and 43% of independents said they had seen McCain ads with a mostly negative message about Obama. Only 19% of Republicans said they had seen McCain commercials with a mostly negative message about the Democrat.

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 October 27- November 2 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 31- November 3 from a nationally representative sample of 1,026 adults.

Many Still Closely Tracking Economic News

While news about the 2008 presidential campaign remained the public’s top story for a second week in a row, the conditions of the U.S. economy continued to attract considerable public interest. For the last two weeks, a third of the public (34%) has listed the economy as their most closely followed news story. Greater than six-in-ten Americans (63%) were following the economy very closely last week and another 27% were following economic news fairly closely. According to Pew’s PEJ, news coverage of the economy accounted for 13% of the newshole, down somewhat from the previous week when it was 22% of total news.

The murder of actress Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew attracted the very close attention of 17% of the public. Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) listed news about the Hudsons as their most closely followed story of the week. As is often the case with tabloid stories, women were more interested in the story than men. Two-in-ten (22%) women followed this story very closely compared with 11% of men. The national media devoted 2% of all news to the Hudson family tragedy.

Despite very little news coverage concerning Iraq, three-in-ten Americans continue to follow the war very closely. Coverage and interest in the war have remained fairly stable this fall.

Merger talks between struggling automakers General Motors and Chrysler were followed very closely by 16% of the public last week. This story attracted less interest than news that General Motors was making major job cuts in 1992 and again when they announced job cuts in 2005.

The guilty verdict in the trial of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens attracted the very close attention of only 10% of the public. Roughly the same percentage followed Stevens’ indictment in August for failing to report gifts and renovations to his home in accordance with Senate financial disclosure rules. Just 2% of the national newshole was devoted to this story.

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.