Summary of Findings
High-profile candidates and the accelerated pace of the 2008 presidential campaign have drawn the public into the race far earlier than in past election cycles. In this week’s survey, 55% of Americans say they are tracking news about the candidates for the 2008 presidential election very or fairly closely. Public interest has been at or near this level consistently over the past three months with an average of 53% closely following the campaign. By comparison, polls conducted in the spring and summer of 2003, found an average of only 38% paying close attention to news about the 2004 presidential election. Similarly, in the early months of the 2000 presidential election, 45% of Americans were closely following campaign news. And, in 1995, 46% of the public was closely following news of the 1996 election.
Public interest in the 2006 campaign has coincided with heavy media coverage of the race. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the campaign has been one of the top five most covered news stories for every week from mid-January through March, as well as the first full week of April. The only news story that has received more coverage this year is the Iraq war.
Democrats have consistently paid closer attention to campaign news than have Republicans. On average interest among Democrats has exceeded interest among Republicans by 12 percentage points. During the week of April 2, when candidates’ first quarter fundraising totals dominated campaign news, 66% of Democrats were paying very or fairly close attention to the campaign compared to 58% of Republicans. Independents have been slightly less attentive to the campaign than Democrats or Republicans throughout most of the year. Last week, 46% of Independents were closely following campaign news.
The most recent comparable presidential election, without an incumbent president, was 2000. In the early stages of that contest, Republicans were following campaign news more closely than were Democrats. During June and July of 1999, the gap in interest between Republicans and Democrats was just under 10% points. In the early stages of the 2004 presidential campaign, when only the Democratic nomination was up for grabs, Democrats were paying closer attention than Republicans to campaign news. Similarly, in 1995, when only the GOP nomination was at stake, Republicans were more interested than Democrats in campaign news.
The partisan gap on interest in the campaign this year may reflect the lopsided nature of the media coverage thus far. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, coverage of Democratic candidates has outweighed coverage of Republicans by a roughly two-to-one margin.
This past week, the presidential campaign was the third most closely followed news story. Fully one quarter of the public followed campaign news very closely and another 30% paid fairly close attention. Twelve percent of the public said the campaign was the single news story they followed more closely than any other. In terms of news coverage, the campaign was ranked no. 2 – 10% of the entire newshole was devoted to campaign news.
Iraq and British Hostages Top News Interests
Two foreign policy stories topped campaign news last week in terms of public interest. Roughly three-in-ten Americans (31%) paid very close attention to the release of 15 British sailors and marines held captive by the Iranian government, and 21% said this was the story they followed most closely. The hostage story was no. 1 in terms of coverage: 12% of the newshole was devoted to this story. One third of the public paid very close attention to the situation in Iraq and 20% said this was the story they followed most closely.
While media coverage of the Iraq war remains focused more heavily on the policy debate, the public expresses more interest in events on the ground in Iraq. Coverage of the policy debate outweighed news about the war itself by a better than two-to-one margin this past week. At the same time, the public was more than twice as likely to list the situation in Iraq, rather than the policy debate at home, as their top news story.
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.
News coverage of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys fell off dramatically last week, while public interest in the story remained fairly constant. The week of March 26, 11% of the newshole was devoted to the U.S. attorney firings – making it one of the top two most covered stories of that week. This past week, only 1% of the news coverage was devoted to this story. Roughly one-in-five Americans paid very close attention to this story last week and 6% said it was the story they followed most closely.
Global warming was back in the news last week – with a Supreme Court ruling on auto emissions and a new report on the causes of global climate change. Five percent of the news for the week was devoted to this topic. Roughly one quarter of the public (26%) followed news about global warming very closely. The same percentage paid very close attention to global warming news in early February of this year following the worldwide conference on the issue in Paris. Public interest in this topic is substantially higher now than it was ten years ago. In late 1997, only about 10% of the public was following news about global warming very closely.
This past week, Democrats followed global warming news much more closely than did Republicans – 35% vs. 18%, respectively, followed the news very closely. In addition, the topic is of greater interest to college graduates than to those who have never attended college (32% vs. 21%, respectively).
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.pewresearch.org/journalism.